Ethan Zohn: A True Survivor

It’s Race Week in New York, as the city prepares for one of its biggest events:  Sunday’s ING New York City Marathon, with 45,000 runners cheered by two million spectators along a 26.2 mile route. All five boroughs will come together in wildly enthusiastic support of runners who show what human determination, discipline and drive can do.

Every runner is trying to test himself or herself against the personal limits of strength and endurance. Many have other objectives as well. Thousands are running to support causes ranging from youth fitness to the 9/11 memorial in Pennsylvania.

I’ll be watching for one runner in particular, a young man who became known to millions of television viewers for his survival skills: Ethan Zohn, winner of TV’s “Survivor: Africa” nine years ago. Today, Ethan has to contend with more than scorching heat and scheming tribe members. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer, in 2009. He was treated and the cancer went into remission; but it has returned and Ethan, who is 37, is again battling the disease.

Ethan is an amazing guy. With a ready smile and an upbeat attitude, he makes friends wherever he goes, and between reality show trips and time spent playing professional soccer, he’s truly traveled the globe. I admire his passion and courage, and his commitment to take this very personal battle into public view. Ethan is a Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) Ambassador, spreading the word that cancer patients can live full, active lives even while undergoing treatment. In 2008 he founded a charity, Grassroot Soccer United, to help end the scourge of HIV/AIDS in Africa. He’s running in the Marathon partly to raise money for that cause.

He has begun a new form of chemotherapy called SGN-35, approved just this year, that seeks out malignant cells and destroys them. After the chemo, he hopes to get a stem-cell transplant from one of his brothers. SGN-35 is an example of the new and exciting therapies that are giving the world new hope in the fight against cancer.

Ethan went through chemotherapy after he was first diagnosed. Warned that the treatment would cause his trademark thick, curly hair to fall out, he got it cut short instead. A small benefit of the new, more targeted therapy, Ethan says, is that “I won’t lose my hair again.”

He isn’t the only cancer survivor in the marathon. I recently read about Darren Ritch from Florida, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008, had surgery, decided to get in shape, lost more than 30 pounds, and has run 22 endurance races. And there’s Dr. Ebbie Jackson of the Bahamas, an optometrist who was diagnosed with breast cancer in early 2010 and has been through chemotherapy, three operations and radiation. She says that training and competing in races has given her a new lease on life.

This year, New York Road Runners (NYRR), the club that organizes the race, will launch a Hall of Fame and induct two marathon legends: Fred Lebow and Grete Waitz. Lebow was the running impresario who led the marathon’s growth from a small local event to the global phenomenon it is today. Waitz was the Norwegian runner who won the marathon a staggering nine times from 1978 to 1988. Cancer took both their lives.

It’s hard to run away from this disease. One in two men will be diagnosed with some form of cancer in his lifetime. One in three women will be. Someone dies of cancer every minute. Think of the best marathon time: In the time that it takes the most elite runners to complete the race, more than 128 people will succumb to the disease, each leaving a gaping hole for grief stricken family and friends.

Afghanistan may be the longest US war in history, but the war on cancer, officially declared by President Richard Nixon, has been going on for 40 years. SU2C’s effort to raise money and awareness, to arm teams of cancer researchers with the best tools to help beat this disease is clearly a marathon, not a sprint.

But if people like Ethan Zohn can run a real marathon while fighting cancer, we should all be cheering them on and working together to try to ensure in the future, cancer doesn’t even get off the starting line.  Good luck, Ethan — in the marathon and in the fight!

To add a note to Ethan’s star in the SU2C Constellation or to launch a star for someone you love, go to

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