Ethan Zohn is a survivor in more ways than one.
The Lexington native and current New Hampshire resident became a household name when he won the third season of the CBS reality show “Survivor” in 2002 before returning to the show again in 2008 for “Survivor: All Stars.” In 2009, Zohn was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a rare form of blood cancer, and underwent chemotherapy, radiation, and stem-cell transplants — only for the cancer to return in 2011.
After another round of treatment, Zohn is now in remission, and he’ll make his reality TV return Wednesday for “Survivor: Winners at War,” an all-star affair featuring 20 previous winners competing for a $2 million prize as part of the show’s 40th season.
Zohn, who is hosting a watch party for the season premiere from 7 to 10 p.m. Wednesday at Kings Bowling in Burlington, chatted with Boston.com about the physical toll of competing on “Survivor” at 45, how he stayed positive through his battle with cancer, and his beef with fellow contestant “Boston Rob” Mariano.
How did you first end up on “Survivor” back in 2001?
EZ: I was playing soccer in Zimbabwe, but my career was on a downward slope. So I moved to New York City, where I got a job at an advertising and branding company. Unfortunately there was a hiring freeze the week I was supposed to come in, so my roommate and I decided to make a video for “Survivor.” I was supposed to make a tape for my buddy and then he would make one for me, but we ran out of time for him. We only sent in my tape, the day before it was due. And the rest is history.
You were 27 when you competed on “Survivor: Africa.” Now you’re 45, and it’s been about 16 years since you competed on “Survivor: All Stars.” How did you prepare both physically for the rigors of the show?
EZ: Because of what I’ve been through health-wise, my physical fitness wasn’t quite where I wanted it. I was living in New Hampshire when I got the call, and you can’t really train on a frozen lake in the snow. My wife had a work opportunity in Atlanta, and I tagged along with her. I got to be outside, and did lots of swimming, running, and weight training, plus more “Survivor”-specific stuff like lighting fires, tying knots, and balancing. I was coming from the couch to playing this game, so I had to get really fit, fast.
As you just alluded to, in 2009 you were diagnosed with CD20-Positive Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a rare form of blood cancer. After going through chemo, radiation, and a stem-cell transplant, the cancer came back 20 months later in 2011, at which point you went through the same process again. What sort of strategies did you use to stay positive and persevere during these life-or-death battles?
EZ: I really approached my time going through cancer like an athletic challenge. Even in my worst of moments, I spent time being physically active, eating well, meditating, and doing vision boards.
When I was in the hospital, I was also watching “Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains.” I was watching it and saying, “One, I want to survive this thing, and two, if I do, my goal is to get healthy enough — mentally, physically, and spiritually — to go play ‘Survivor’ again.” Watching “Survivor” in the hospital reminded me of a time when I wasn’t sick, when I had no idea that I would get cancer. It let me tap into being that 27-year-old kid again. I visualized it, set my goals on getting back to that point, and it happened.
You mentioned your physical preparation, but on the flip side, how did you prepare mentally for the show? There have been 31 seasons of “Survivor” since you last competed, and Jeff Probst and CBS have made all sorts of changes to the competition over the years. Did you approach this season differently than you did “Africa” and “All-Stars”?
EZ: The benefit I had going into this season was that it had been so long since I’d competed. Half the competitors probably thought I was dead. No one knows how I played, and no one knows how I would play with all the twists they’ve added — idols, hidden immunities, ways to get back in the game, any of that.
On the past two occasions, I had every intention of going in there and doing whatever it takes to get ahead. Lie, cheat, steal, be nice, charm, do anything. But getting out there in the competition, things change a bit. Unless you’re the best actor in the world, it’s hard to hide from the cameras. Your real self comes into focus when you’re starving, thirsty, and there’s $1 million or $2 million being dangled in front of you. When approaching this season, I figured it would be a lot more difficult to change who I am as a person to win this game. I came into this season with a fresh perspective on life, a fresh perspective on how I relate to other people. Because “Survivor” is a game of relationships. It’s how you interact with other people that determines how far you get in the game. At the core, no one wants to vote for a person at the end who they don’t like.
You competed on “All Stars” with “Boston Rob” [Mariano] and his now-wife Amber. Had you stayed in contact with them or with anyone else who ended up on the island with you this season prior to filming?
EZ: First off, what’s with him getting to be “Boston Rob”? I was the first winner from the Boston area. I don’t know how the heck this guy got that nickname. It took him four times to win the game. It only took me one. Just putting that out there.
I didn’t keep in touch with Rob and Amber at all. First time I talked to Rob was the first day on the island.
We have three Boston people this season. Jeremy [Collins], who lives in Foxborough. Myself, who grew up in Lexington, Rob, who grew up in Boston. Actually, Michele [Fitzgerald] used to live in the Boston area, so four. You have a decent crew of people from this area, but there were no pre-game local alliances for me.
You’ll be back in town to host your official “Survivor” premiere watch party at Kings in Burlington, a town over from Lexington. How cool is it to be back on your old stomping grounds?
EZ: When I won, the highlight of my life was driving down Mass. Ave. in Lexington Center and seeing that the movie theater had “Congratulations Ethan!” on the marquee. My family still lives in the area, and whenever I’m back, I always take the long way home and drive past my childhood house.
Actually, the reason I chose a bowling alley in Burlington was because the old bowling alley I used to go to was gone. When I was a junior and senior at LHS, we would skip school on Tuesday and go to Papa Gino’s for the all-you-can-eat pizza feast and go to Wal-Lex and go bowling. I’m inviting all my LHS friends on Wednesday, so it’s gonna be really fun to make this premiere party a little more local.
“Survivor: Winners at War” premieres Wednesday, Feb. 12 at 8 p.m. on CBS.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.