Survivor’s Ethan Zohn on Falling In Love Amid Cancer Battle
In 2001, Ethan Zohn was on top of the world. He was 27 years old, living in New York City, and had just won $1 million as the third season winner of Survivor. But Ethan soon became a survivor in another way: A few years later, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and despite undergoing chemotherapy treatments, his cancer returned again two years later.
At the lowest point in his life, something amazing happened — Ethan met his future wife Lisa Heywood, an interior designer. Ethan, currently starring in Survivor: Winners at War, brought Lisa along to speak with our producer Emily Pinto. The couple opened up about starting a new relationship while battling cancer, the words they live by, and sweet surprises.
Wake-Up Call: Tell us how you two met.
Lisa Heywood: We met at a charity poker tournament put on by President Clinton that neither of us were supposed to go to. My friends dragged me at the last minute, and his friends dragged him at the same time. When I got there, I saw him from across the room and I said, “I think that’s Ethan from Survivor!”
Ethan Zohn: Everyone sat down to play poker, and for some reason we were the only two people still standing up. So we kind of locked eyes. At the time I had a giant pink mohawk. I was about to go into the hospital for my second stem cell transplant, so I was like, “Screw it, I’m going to lose my hair anyway, might as well go big.” Lisa loved it. She goes to Burning Man every year, so she thought I was one of her people.
At one point Lisa was whisked away to meet President Clinton, but I had already gotten her phone number. I texted her from across the room: “Hey, you’re taking an awful long time with Billy.” And she texted me back, “Why? Do you miss me?” And I texted back, “Kind of…” And she replied, “You can do better than that.” So I said, “Let’s put it this way… I’m the biggest winner in the room tonight.”
Our courtship phase was really long, because I was literally in the middle of the fight for my life. I got the transplant, and Lisa and I remained friends, and then once I got my life back in order we started seeing each other. But because of my health concerns, dating was weird. The first time we went on a date, I was bald and had to wear a mask and gloves. I wasn’t allowed to be in public so we just drove around together in her car. We couldn’t touch each other, or kiss, for months. So yes, it was a long courtship.
Lisa, what was it about Ethan that made you say, even though this is a complicated situation, this guy is worth it?
Lisa: I was well into my 40s when I met him. I’m 52 now. It was just a feeling! People describe that feeling — almost like love at first sight. He was going through so much with his illness, and recovery, and there was a point where he said, “You don’t want to sign up for this — I don’t even know if I have a future.” And I said, “I understand what you’re saying, but cancer took so much from you. Don’t let it take this too.”
Ethan: Mentally I was not in a good place when we met. I was 35 years old, I looked awful, I had a 50 percent chance of making it past five years. I was sterile. I had no job. I wasn’t the guy you take home to mom and say, “This is the guy I’m in love with!” I was a disaster. But Lisa pulled me out of the darkness, and healed me. She helped me to function properly again in the world.
Lisa: He was definitely very vulnerable when we met, but I think that helped us to form a special bond. I gave him space when he needed it, and then very slowly we started dating. He really didn’t think he had a future, so we never had those conversations about “What are we,” or “Are we on a path to a relationship?” Just being present for him in the beginning was really what I was there to do, because I cared about him a lot. I didn’t have any agenda. I just wanted to be there for him, and see what would happen.
Ethan, what was it about Lisa that made you feel like, even though the future is uncertain, you were willing to take a chance on her?
Ethan: After I got out of the fog of treatment, I had to rebuild my life from the ground up. Mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally, socially… And Lisa was there at that moment. She was the first person in my life that saw me at my lowest and my weakest. She was there, with no judgment, and was open to all of the baggage that I came with. Which was a lot!
I had never been with anyone who was willing to take on all of the wonderful things I have to offer, of course, but also all of the bad things. There are a lot of invisible scars, and baggage, and insecurities that come with being a young adult cancer survivor. Lisa was present, and open to taking it all on, and she loved me for who I was, even when I was broken.
What did this really intense start to your relationship teach you about marriage?
Lisa: I never once mentioned marriage to him. I was 45 when we met, and I’d had a 10 year relationship that ended when I was 40, and Ethan had come out of quite a long-term relationship, too. I had a bunch of time between my last relationship and meeting Ethan, so I felt very stable. I just felt like I was in a place where I had the capacity to help him, and to see if I could get him over that hump. I didn’t ever put pressure on him, or on myself for that matter, to get married. I was in a good place. I had a lot of friends my age who were single. When he came along, I’d already had my years of fun in the city, so I was like, I can take this on. I have no idea where this is going, and that’s ok.
Ethan: There was no pressure, no deadlines, no expectations, we were just together, and enjoyed each other’s company. I had lived in New York City and had the time of my life, right after I was on Survivor it was a crazy time. There was lots of attention, but nobody had really taken the time to get to know me as a human being. Not that I was some major celebrity, but at that time in 2001, Survivor was crazy popular.
Lisa: What he’s trying to say is that all of the ladies were after him!
Ethan: Oh, yeah. [Laughs] I was a 27 year old young guy with $1 million in New York City... It was great! But years later when Lisa came along, after everything I’d been through, she was the first person who seemed real to me.
You two have a saying: “We should never be apart.” How did you come up with this?
Lisa: When we first met, I had a bad case of strep throat, which he couldn’t get because, with his immune system, it could have killed him. So there was a long period of time when I was recovering from that when we couldn’t see each other. He wrote me a text message that said “We should never be apart.” And I was like “Oh my God that’s so cute!” So now that’s just what we say. He travels pretty extensively and I can’t always go with him, and it’s just one of those things when we’re feeling sad not to be together, we’ll say to each other.
Lisa how did you feel when you found out Ethan would be leaving to participate in Survivor: Winners at War? Ethan how long did you have to be away for?
Ethan: I was away for six weeks, and there is no communication. Shut down.
Lisa: It was SO hard. Because if we’re not in the same room together, and he’s on the road, he’s constantly emailing me, texting me, or Facebook messaging me — he uses all the platforms. Usually I have this barrage of communication. So for him to leave and for me not to know if he was ok, was very difficult. But Ethan, of course, came up with a cute solution.
Ethan: I got a stack of cards, one for each day I would be away, so every day I was gone she could open a nice little note from me about how much I loved her and missed her. And then when I missed her when I was out there, I would send her messages through the moon. And I know she got them! (laughs) I think I was sending messages to the moon pretty much 24 hours a day — because on Survivor the days are long but the nights are longer.
Lisa, do you think you would be a contender on “Survivor?”
Lisa: Oh God, no! That ship has long sailed. No thanks!
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This originally appeared in Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.