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My Cancer Survivor Story: From Childhood Cancer Survivor to Survivor Contestant

Daniel Strunk on Survivor

Photo credit: Robert Voets/CBS

Survivor overflows with traditions—and although Jeff Probst and his friends at CBS have treated some of those traditions as more malleable than others, one of them has remained unchanged since the show’s first episode back in May 2000. After a contestant is voted out, he or she sits down, looks into a camera, and says his or her “final words.”

With rare exception, CBS airs these final words while the credits roll—and, maybe because of this, most viewers don’t pay them much attention. To be fair, none have yet surpassed the oratory of Nathan Hale’s final words—although Rupert Boneham came close in Pearl Islands. (I recommend this podcast with Mike Bloom, a Survivor journalist, who recaps his “top twenty.”)

I was voted out on Day 11 of Season 42 of Survivor. I’m still reflecting on my Survivor experience. But if you asked me right now, “What are you most proud of from your time on Survivor?” — I’d probably answer, “My final words.” Those words were:

“If I could have scripted my life, I probably wouldn’t have given myself leukemia, right? And if I could have scripted Survivor, I probably would have had myself winning. But the beauty of life is that it’s unscripted. That’s how we find meaning in it.”

I’m proud of my words because they frame at least part of my approach to life, born of my struggle with leukemia.

The first sentence that I spoke was quite literally true. If, before I was ever born, I found myself tasked with scripting my life to come, I doubt I would have written in 3 years of chemotherapy, shots, surgeries, and days I was too weak to brush my teeth. Enduring cancer (I like this phrase better than “fighting cancer”) is not really something you wish on yourself.

But here’s the paradox: today, I would not choose to undo it all. I am now a 31-year-old man, several decades removed from my cancer struggle, and, if someone asked me: “Daniel, if you could, would you go back in time and make it so that you never had cancer?” — I would say no.

The reason is simple: my cancer journey might not have been part of a “perfect life script,” but it has become such a huge part of my personal identity, and such a profound source of strength to me, that if I said “Yes” to that question, I would almost commit a form of self-denial. Asking me “Daniel, would you like to undo your cancer?” is almost like asking “Daniel, would you like to be a totally different person?” And I’m happy to report, I like who I am.

My time on Survivor manifested a dream that had lived in my heart since childhood.

When, on Day 11 of my Survivor journey, I clunkily pulled flippers onto my feet and shuffled awkwardly out into the blue Fijian waters to go spearfishing, was it a good strategic choice? Probably not, says the prevailing narrative (though I think my torch would have tangled with Jeff’s snuffer that night, no matter what I did in the ocean that day).

But I do know that, as I swam around out there, I said to myself “Daniel, be happy to be alive right now. You used to be in a hospital bed. Now look at where you are.”

Would winning the show of Survivor have been nice, and—maybe—a more epic way to script my narrative (“Childhood cancer survivor goes from watching Survivor to winning Survivor!”). Sure.

But as I said shortly after Jeff snuffed my torch: the beauty of life is that it’s unscripted. And, because of my unscripted cancer, what otherwise would have been a laidback snorkel trip was, instead, transformed into a moment of existential satisfaction that I will always treasure.

There is more to life than perfect story arcs.