'Survivor': Ethan Zohn Says It Wasn't a 'Smart Decision' to Return for 'Winners at War' (Exclusive)

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Ethan Zohn is the true definition of a survivor. 

The former soccer player was the third winner of Survivorafter appearing on the CBS reality competition's Africa installment in 2001. He returned to the game three years later for 2004's Survivor: All-Stars, and is once again back on our TV screens with the show's milestone 40th season, Winners at War. But over 15 years away from the game takes a toll on a Survivor player -- especially one who has battled cancer. 

"Building yourself back after cancer is a difficult process," Zohn tells ET. He was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer called CD20-positive Hodgkin's lymphoma in April 2009, and was declared cancer-free a year later, after several months of treatments. Then, after nearly 20 months of remission, cancer returned in his chest. Zohn revealed in 2013 that he was officially cancer-free, but beating the disease twice has taken a toll on his body. "It's just a lot on you as a human being," he explains. 

After passing up the opportunity to compete again in 2016 (the filming schedule conflicted with his wedding to Lisa Heywood), Zohn couldn't have been more excited about joining Winners at War. And, as of last week's episode, he seems to be ruling the game on the Sele Tribe with Boston Rob Mariano and Parvati Shallow. 

In an interview with ET, Zohn opens up about coming back to Survivor, his Winners at War strategy, and why he'll likely never play again. 

ET: It's been a long time since you've played Survivor, so what brought you back for this season? 

Ethan Zohn: The fact that I was part of this show way back in the day and had the opportunity to play again, for me, it was a huge gift. I've been through some health challenges and I remember sitting in the hospital room watching Heroes vs. Villains, getting my second stem cell transplant and dreaming to myself that someday I'd be healthy enough mentally, physically, spiritually to be able to go play Survivor again. When they called for season 40, I instantly said yes because it was just getting to this point in my life, to be able to go play Survivor for me was, like, that's winning for me. 

You mentioned your health. Did that shape your approach to the game this time around? And if so, how? 

Yes, it definitely did. Having gone through such a major health challenge and recovering from that [was hard]. Going through cancer is difficult but for me, personally, it was the after-effects that was the most difficult. I'm a giant ball of anxiety. I live in fear that my cancer is going to come back for a third time, and it just does something to you. I got into a great, beautiful, wonderful rhythm in my life. I live in New Hampshire, I got married, I have two beautiful cats, my wife... I had my toolkit. I was a little bit nervous, like, "What's going to happen when all of a sudden I'm out there on this island, I don't have Lisa, the cats, my CBD?" And then you put Survivor on top of that. I was just a little bit concerned with what's going to happen. I was a little bit nervous about that, but obviously, the excitement and the ability to play this season outweighed all of that.

What was your strategy going in? The game has changed tremendously since you last played. 

I thought about how everyone else was going to perceive me. I was trying to put myself in everyone else's mind. There were rumors about who was going to be out there and I definitely researched that, and thought, "What do they think of me as a person?" I didn't think they knew too much. "He was a nice guy." But I played so long ago that I don't know how to play with idols or hidden clues or blindsides. I didn't do any of that. It was such a different game. I think being underestimated in my strategy, in my gameplay, was my superpower.

Going into this, I definitely wanted to be a little bit... like they wouldn't know how I was going to play. I'm not necessarily the A-type personality guy. I'm not the person who's going to be standing up and barking orders or leading the charge. I feel very comfortable as the guy behind the guy, so I knew I wanted to align with some bigger threats out there and people that I may have known in a previous time or life or on the show, meaning people I'd played with before. But I wanted to also tap into the new school world so I needed to align with someone who had played more recently than I did, which was a lot.

If you look at how they split up the people they asked back, only six were considered old school, prior to season 20, and 14 had played post, in the new school era. I knew I wanted to be with some new school and old school. That was my strategy going in. I still believe Survivor is a game of relationships. It's how you work with one another, how you treat one another that determines how far and how well you go in the game. In the end of the game, I truly believe -- after watching so many seasons -- people are going to vote for someone they like. Like, not that many people want to vote for someone who is a complete a**hole unless they played a spectacular game that's head and shoulders above anyone else. You kind of want to give the money to someone you like or someone you respect or you have a personal bond with, so at its core, Survivor's a game of relationships. I feel like that's something I excel in, is developing personal relationships. That's how I won Survivor and someone can go out there and play that same strategy again and do well.

A lot of the players this season have met each other, played with each other, or, in Rob and Amber's case, married each other. How did that shape things for you? Were you worried about having to go up against some players, having watched them on the show?

I wasn't necessarily intimidated by anybody or their gameplay, because each game is different and each person playing in that specific season is going to play a little bit of a different game. I was concerned with some of the pre-existing relationships because I completely fell off the map in 2007. Everybody goes to events and speeches and charities and parties in L.A. and so I was a little bit nervous that people had strong friendships with others coming into this game. I remember from when I played Survivor: All-Stars, there were people who had strong relationships, including myself. I had a great relationship with Lex and Tom and that did not hold well for me because everyone else knew that.

Going into the game, I knew that if I was aware of folks that were really good friends, it was someone I needed to keep an eye on... if they were friends outside of the game. But I didn't really have many pre-existing bonds going into this. I knew Parvati; I was friends with. I hadn't talked to Rob since 2010, 10 years. Amber, more than that. Tyson, I never talked to. Danni, I had talked to once in my life. I think I was in a little bit of a disadvantage going into the game without knowing anyone. Like I said, it goes back to new school players, they all hang out. That definitely is a positive for them going into this game.

Was there anyone that you specifically wanted to play with? 

I had done my research and I knew that Adam was a superfan and he's Jewish, his mom had cancer. I felt like we could have a good bond together. He was new school, so when I saw him on the beach, I was excited because I felt like I could kind of leverage his fanboy over the other players and maybe even myself because I had read I was one of his favorite players. Here I am, I'll use that to my advantage, right? I was excited to see him.

I was nervous to see Boston Rob. Our relationship on All-Stars was fine but we kind of went back and forth at each other, some smack talk and I hadn't talked to him in 10 years. There's no animosity there, but I didn't know how we would respond to each other and he had just played six times up until this point, so he's an expert at this game -- It took him four times to win, it only took me once. I just want to say that. I'm just saying! Not that I keep track or anything. Then there were the big names, Sandra, Parvati, where you just read about them over the years and they're built up to such a high standard that everyone is scared of them.

Were you happy with how things turned out for you this season? 

I think the game is an incredible, awesome, wonderful game and I'm incredibly happy with what happened.

Would you go out and play again? 

No. (Laughs.) Yeah... I don't think... I don't know! It's so... I just want to put into perspective where, and I'm not trying to be the "poor me, crying B," but building yourself back up after cancer is a difficult process. And Survivor, the game itself, there are moments... like I said, I was afraid to go out there without my toolkit that I had and I just didn't know what it would do to me but it screws you up mentally and physically and spiritually and socially. It messes you up. I've done that already, you know? So I went out there, I did my first two Survivors, then I had to go through cancer twice and build myself back up and here I go out there and do it again, it's just a lot on you as a human being.

I just don't know at this age, and what I've been through health-wise, that I could ever really... I don't think it would be a smart decision to go. I don't think it was a smart decision to play this time, but I think it would be an even worse decision to go next time, health-wise. 

Survivor: Winners at War airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS. 

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