06/01/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT
Ethan Zohn thought he just had a skin condition. Plagued by uncontrollable itching and night sweats since January, he visited dermatologists and allergists and tried creams and UV treatments, "but nothing worked," says Zohn, 35, the perennially upbeat soccer player who won 2002's Survivor: Africa. His girlfriend of five years, Survivor: The Amazon champ Jenna Morasca, 28, thought he had been bitten by a strange insect during a New Year's trip to Nicaragua. But on April 30 Zohn's doctor called with a very different diagnosis: cancer.
"My life flashed before my eyes," says Zohn, whose father died of colon cancer when Ethan was just 14. "I was yelling and screaming." On May 15, with Morasca at his side, Zohn began a three-month chemotherapy regimen for CD20-positive Hodgkin's lymphoma, a rare form of Hodgkin's disease, which can have survival rates as high as 90 percent. He vows not only to survive but thrive. "This is happening for a reason," says Zohn, who's promising to "help and inspire people" as he fights the disease. "This is the ultimate game of Survivor," he says, "and I'll come out with something worth a lot more than a million dollars."