Ethan Zohn, the curly-haired soccer player who battled the elements and outwitted opponents to win Survivor: Africa, is facing his toughest adversary yet: cancer.
On April 30, Zohn was diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin’s disease. The diagnosis came after months of unexplained itching and night sweats, originally thought to be a skin condition. Doctors discovered a swollen lymph node under his left clavicle, and a CT scan revealed a mass on the left side of his chest. Then, just last week, Zohn learned he is suffering from a rare form the disease called CD20-positive Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, for which he began chemotherapy last Friday.
“This is the ultimate game of Survivor,” Zohn, 35, tells PEOPLE exclusively, “and there’s really only one outcome, and that’s to win. There’s no other option.”
Hodgkin’s disease is a cancer of the body’s lymphatic system with survival rates reaching as high as 90 percent. Zohn was told that the CD20 diagnosis, which affects around five percent of all Hodgkin’s patients, has a similar cure rate, but is treated with an altered, more aggressive, three-month chemotherapy regimen. “They’re going right after this,” he says.
The chemo is expected to knock the always active and otherwise fit Zohn mostly out of commission for a few months, with nausea and weakness among its side effects. And he’s expected to lose his famous mop of hair within two weeks.
Zohn’s longtime girlfriend, Survivor: The Amazon winner Jenna Morasca, 27, is vowing to be at his side throughout the process. “I will fight with every fabric of my being to get him through this,” Morasca tells PEOPLE.
Educating, Inspiring Others
Both Zohn and Morasca lost parents to cancer. Zohn’s father died of colon cancer when Ethan was 14. Morasca’s mother died in 2003, after a 12-year battle with breast cancer. “Our only point of reference with this situation is death,” says Morasca.
Upon hearing the diagnosis, says Zohn, “My life flashed before my eyes.” But in the roller coaster of emotions that followed, Zohn came to a conclusion: He wants to use his battle with cancer as way to educate and inspire others.
“This is happening for a reason,” he tells PEOPLE. “You have to get spiritual about this [stuff]. I know I want to help people and inspire people. That’s my purpose in life. So I need to use this as a platform.”
Zohn, who has worked to raise money and awareness for AIDS relief in Africa through his Grassroot Soccer charity ever since winning Survivor‘s $1-million prize in 2002, had his first chemo treatment in Manhattan last Friday. Doctors inserted a small, octagonal port in his chest through which the chemo will be administered “like a fast-filling station” every two weeks. “It looks like I have a third nipple right now,” says Zohn. “You can call me trip-nip!”
He’ll face the loss of his hair with the same bravado. “My hair is my identity,” he admits. But rather than find “long, disgusting Ethan Zohn hair all over my house,” he’s decided to shave it off in the next few days: “I’ll get a mohawk or something fun that I’ve always wanted to do.”
That’s just fine with Morasca. “I so love the bad-boy look,” she says. “I’d have him get a tattoo and a nose piercing, too, but he’s not into it.”
Bad-boy looks or not, Zohn says he feels well-prepared for the long fight ahead. “I’ve got good family and friends, and I’ll roll with the punches as it comes to me. That’s how I work in life. I’ll take it on like a real game of Survivor,” he says, adding: “I’m not getting voted out of this one.”