‘Survivor’ Season 33 Winner Adam Klein on His Late Mother: I’m ‘Struggling’ Without Her

Fighting the good fight! Since winning the million-dollar prize — and title of Sole Survivor — on season 33 of Survivor, Adam Klein has been committed to raising money in honor of his late mother, Susie, who battled lung cancer while her son played their favorite game.

“It’s a very misunderstood and very underfunded disease,” Klein told Us Weekly from the Stand Up To Cancer Scientific Summit in Santa Monica. “People think it’s ‘just a smoker’s disease’ or ‘if you live healthy and don’t smoke you’re going to avoid it and it’s not your problem.’”

“My mom is a perfect example of how that’s not true. Anyone can get lung cancer. My mom worked out every day and never smoked a day in her life,” the homeless-shelter manager explained, in between hearing presentations from a dream team of researchers and scientists who are working to treat the difficult mutation of cancer his mother had. “She ate organically and was the epitome of health.” In fact, she was cleared medically to play Survivor about two and a half years ago, Klein says of his mother, who died days after her son finished filming.

At the December finale, he revealed to Us that he was confident he’d won, and he told his mother moments before she passed that he was the victor. But even before learning the official outcome, he wanted to take the visibility from being on Survivor and channel it into something positive.

“I wanted to do something that was going to leave a positive legacy for my mom where we would be able to, at the end of it, look back and say we helped push the needle forward and move us closer to a cure or to chronically managing this disease that affects thousands and thousands of people every year and is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths,” he says.

To reach this goal, Klein contacted Stand Up To Cancer, which has helped him raise over $360,000 in honor of his mother since he took home the prize. Immediately after winning, the 26-year-old instantly pledged $100,000 to that fund, and Bristol-Myers Squibb offered to match the first $100,000 donated by the public.

Adam Klein Survivor Stand Up 2 Cancer
Survivor's Adam Klein (second from left) participates in a Facebook Live with the American Cancer Society and co-leaders of the SU2C-ACS Lung Cancer Dream Team on Jan. 23, 2017, during the Stand Up To Cancer Scientific Summit Todd Buchanan/SU2C 2017

Klein hopes to inspire people the way that his mother lived — "so full of life, so full of energy, always laughing and dancing and smiling.” If he can accomplish this, he says, “we would bring so much more meaning to her life and the disease that took her.”

While Klein says “things are pretty much the same as they’ve always been” in his life since winning the show, he admits his family is still adjusting to life without his mother.

“We’re still obviously struggling with the force that was my mom, the presence that’s missing from our lives,” says Klein, who returned to his pre-Survivor job after the show. “So that was the greatest struggle before Survivor aired, as it was airing, and it continues to be, but we’re doing everything that we can to hold our heads high, to look forward, and to channel whatever pain that we have from that nightmare that we went through, into something positive that’s going to bring more meaning into her life.”

One thing that certainly hasn’t changed for Klein is his love of Survivor — a love he shared with his mom.

“I’m just as big of a fan of Survivor as I ever was, before I ever stepped foot on that beach,” he says. “However, I’m definitely going to look at it with a new perspective, a new lens, because I know firsthand that what you see on the television show is just a very, very small fraction of what is actually happening out there.”

The show — which returns on March 8 for Survivor: Game Changers — will feature two returning players from Klein’s season, Zeke Smith and Michaela Bradshaw.

“I’m incredibly excited to see some of these perennial all-stars coming back,” Klein says. “But I of course have got to root for my season 33 brethren, Zeke and Michaela.”

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