This past Wednesday, May 18, Ethan Zohn spoke in the Nott about the values he has upheld throughout numerous hardships in his life.
Zohn was introduced by Kaitlyn Suarez ’16, a cancer survivor who identified Zohn’s story as one of her greatest inspirations during her own treatment. Suarez later quoted: “Ethan’s ability to take both good and bad life experiences to become a more caring and compassionate person truly inspired me. He taught us that life is about finding our song, and then finding the courage to sing it. We can all make our community a better place in our own way.”
Zohn’s fame spawned from the show Survivor: Africa. After winning the show and receiving a 1 million dollar reward, Zohn was diagnosed on two separate occasions with a rare form of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Throughout his battle with cancer, Zohn received two stem cell transplants and 22 radiation blasts.
“I’ve created a new course here: Ethan Zohn from Survivor 101,” Zohn says after showing a clip of highlights from his time on Survivor: Africa. The essential question of the class, Zohn emphasized, was “What made you the person you are today?”
For him, the answer to this question began with the saying on a card his mother sent him when he was first diagnosed with cancer: “A bird does not sing because it has the answers, it sings because it has a song.” This saying, Zohn went on, soon became applicable to his life as he went from being “on top of the world” to being debilitated with cancer.
Nonetheless, Zohn describes how he lives with no regrets, stressing the fact that cancer made him “recommitted to what is really important.”
From his experiences, Zohn derives the idea that we are all survivors, everyday, as we grow in response to challenge. Zohn further described his time on Survivor with the comment: “I was left with the bare essentials of who I am.
There are four rules, Zohn explains, that he closely followed during Survivor and his battle against cancer, and that he believes everyone must uphold (especially to survive college).
The first is to be “selfless in a selfless game.” During Survivor, Zohn formed an alliance with another contestant, Lex. During one of the challenges, Zohn sacrificed winning the event so that Lex would not lose and be voted off of the show. This decision, says Zohn, improved his relationship with Lex and ultimately benefited himself and his partner.
The second rule Zohn emphasizes is to “be a leader.” Zohn expanded his definition of a leader by saying that being a leader is not a role but a mindset. This rule Zohn exemplified during his professional soccer career, where he gave his full effort to his role on the team and had it ultimately pay off with playing time during games.
The third rule is to “be a teacher.” Zohn talked about his alliance on Survivor with co-competitor Tom, who came from a small southern town and had no experience of meeting someone of Zohn’s Jewish heritage. Zohn took the opportunity here to lead by example and teach Tom about his culture, rather than become defensive over Tom’s ignorance of the Jewish religion.
The fourth and last rule Zohn gave is to “be a member of the community.” Zohn explains how he made himself a crucial part of the Survivor community by making personal relationships. “There is always common ground,” he stresses.
These values, Zohn says, are what carried him through both episodes of cancer. “I felt like my whole body had turned against me,” Zohn said, explaining his emotion after being told 20 months after his first episode of Hotchkiss Lymphoma that the cancer had returned. He then began to pray, and attributes the availability of a second stem cell transplant to a complete miracle. Zohn’s brother, Lee Zohn, was discovered as a match for Zohn, and could provide him with healthy stem cells.
Zohn then welcomed Laura Pacheco to the stage to explain the importance of stem cell donation. Pacheco had signed up as a potential donor years before she received the call that explained she was a 100% match for a two year old boy with a rare blood cancer. Pacheco explained how she only had to sacrifice one day to provide the boy with another chance at life.
The treatment, Pacecho explained, was so minor that she was back to playing sports the next day. Pacecho got the opportunity to meet the boy in Florida a while after his treatment, to see how her donation had allowed him a healthier childhood.
“It’s not painful and it doesn’t take a huge amount of time,” Pachecho says, urging the audience to sign up as potential donors.
Zohn returned to the stage one last time to promote his organization “Grassroot Soccer.” This organization is described as “An adolescent health organization that educates, inspires, and mobilizes young people to overcome their greatest health challenges and live healthier, more productive lives.”
The organization was inspired by one of Zohn’s experiences in Survivor, when he played hacky sack in the parking lot of a hospital with a group of HIV positive children. Zohn was further exposed to the impact of AIDS on the African population when he was shown a burial site designated to AIDS victims. Astonished, Zohn used his $1 million prize money to begin “Grassroot Soccer.” This organization uses famous soccer players and coaches to inspire African youth to make healthy choices, and provide them with an outlet for fun and sport.
Zohn concluded the talk with the line “Never let a crisis go to waste, because it is an opportunity to do important things.”