True Survivors

Survivor stars Ethan Zohn and Jenna Morasca share survival tips for making a relationship work despite cancer.

Bari Nan Cohen
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Photo credit: Andrew Coppa

When Survivor winner Ethan Zohn’s cancer returned last year, he and then girlfriend, Jenna Morasca, were devastated. First diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in April 2009, Ethan underwent radiation and an autologous stem cell transplant, in which doctors remove a person’s stem cells—which generate other types of cells—prior to high doses of chemotherapy, then return them via infusion.

The treatment was expected to cure him and Ethan and Jenna quickly charged ahead with their lives. Unfortunately, in September 2011, doctors discovered the cancer had returned in his chest. A few weeks later, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a new chemotherapy drug—the first new treatment for Hodgkin’s disease in more than three decades. Ethan received the treatment and redoubled his efforts to raise money for cancer research.

What was their secret to remaining hopeful and a strong relationship? Here, they share tips on surviving cancer and love:

If you’re a patient…

  • Discover your spiritual core. Although Ethan was raised as a Conservative Jew, he now considers himself more spiritual than religious. “I draw from a lot of sources,” he explains. “Being physical—running, doing military-style boot camps, swimming, even taking a walk—that’s spiritual for me. I also practice meditation and visualization, too. It has kept me whole and helped me cope.”
  • Find a mentor. “My Imerman Angels support group matched me with a guy who went through Hodgkin’s disease at the same age,” says Ethan. “He mentors me through phone conversations and emails. During my first battle I said, ‘If we get through this, we’re running the New York City Marathon together.’ Much to my surprise, he said ‘yes,’ so we met in person for the first time at the (2011) marathon and ran the race together.”
  • Go online. “My doctors at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center put me in touch with other cancer patients, and we formed an email group to support each other,” says Ethan. “It’s helpful.” 
  • Get physical. “Since my new diagnosis, I’ve skied the peaks of Vail; ran two half marathons and the New York City Marathon; and scuba dived in Maui,” says Ethan.

If you’re a caregiver…

  • Let others help. During Ethan’s long hospital stay, Jenna let others keep him company from time to time. “That allowed me to go back to our apartment, see some friends and exercise,” she says.
  • Use social media. “It hasn’t been hard for me to find people going through the same thing,” says Jenna. “Fans who know me from twitter and Facebook have reached out, and I’ve struck up pretty significant email relationships as a result.”
  • Recharge in a way that fits your personality. “Ethan always opted for something physical to relieve stress or even to reconnect with me,” says Jenna. “But I’m more likely to opt for an evening on the couch, watching a movie, ordering pizza—or going to the movies.”
  • Don’t back-burner your feelings. “Both of you need to have a voice,” says Jenna. “Sometimes the sick person doesn’t want to complain, and sometimes the caregiver doesn’t want to complain. But you run into problems if you think your feelings aren’t valid.” And that way you know what the other person is thinking and you’ll be a better couple because of that.
June 2012