John J. Fish grew up in Boone, played football under legendary coach Jack Groce and, following graduation from UNC-Chapel Hill, went on to have a successful journalism career.
After rising in that career to positions such as managing editor of The Robesonian in Lumberton, city editor of the York (Pa.) Daily Record, asst. general manager and managing editor of The Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle and publisher of the The Topeka (Kansas) Capital-Journal and then the Naples (Fla.) Daily News, Fish was suddenly diagnosed with brain cancer — bringing his career, his myriad awards, including those for early digital journalism, and much of his life to an abrupt halt in 2008.
Following surgery and rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Fish now lives in Winston-Salem and has penned a memoir, “All my Might,” documenting his time spent in Boone and the journey he is now on. Fish’s passion for sports, shown throughout the book, is outshone only by the optimism he espouses. “All my Might” is a story about surviving — and thriving.
Recently, Mountain Times caught up with Fish by phone to ask him a few questions about his memoir, his illness and how he stays positive and upbeat in the midst of personal tragedy. His answers are insightful, not only for those with a life-threatening diagnosis, but for everyone in their daily struggles.
Tom: John, after reading your memoir, I feel comfortable asking you a question a lot of readers will want the answer to. How are you doing?
John: I’m doing pretty well, now. I’ve had a couple of problems crop up this past year that I’m having to take care of. But, overall, I’m doing fine. Doing fine.
Tom: That’s wonderful. You touch on this in your book, “All my Might,” but please tell me, what inspired you to write your memoir?
John: I wrote it to try to touch all those people who have tumors and those who have had tumors to try to tell them to stay positive and optimistic every day of your life. As hard as that might be for all of us, I encourage everyone with cancer or a tumor or both to give it their best shot every day. I try to give them my story about what I’ve done, and what I’ve been through, in hopes of giving them that sense of inspiration.
Tom: Your book touches on some very sensitive subjects, including your medical history, some bad doctoring and a divorce following your diagnosis. You shared a lot of this in your blogs — many of which you include in the second half of your memoir — but, how difficult was it to write about and share such personal aspects of your life in book form?
John: It wasn’t really as difficult as people might expect it to be because everything I did, there was a reason behind it. I felt like it wasn’t my reasoning, as much as it was the good Lord’s. After my wife and I separated and I came up to stay with my mom a little bit, I tried to go back to Naples and work out our problems, but couldn’t. My main doctor … told me, ‘John, you’ve got to get to cooler weather.’ I was still having a lot of seizures living in Naples, Fla. I could look at her and tell she truly meant it. I thought for just a second, and I thought, where else would I rather go than my hometown? I guess it’s the coolest spot in the South. I made up my mind fast about where I was going and that’s where I ended up in 2011 — and I haven’t had a major seizure since I made the move.
Tom: Following the discovery of the brain cancer in 2008, and after a successful career spent in journalism, you ironically found it difficult to find the correct words when you spoke and had significant trouble with your short-term memory.
John: I still do (have these problems). It’s my biggest weakness. When I’m thinking or having conversations with friends, I forget what word I’m looking for to complete a sentence. Most of my good friends and family know that and they come up with the word before I can come up with it. I’ll always have that problem. The doctor who preformed the operation on me said there were several things that I would have to work on forever, and that was one of them. And, he’s right. I try like heck to work my way through it, but I can’t do it every day.
Tom: I’m thinking, then, it must have been incredibly challenging to write, edit and assemble a book.
John: It was challenging. But, a lot of what I had was on paper, (notes) that I had taken of happenings or events, including every meeting with a doctor and all the events that had happened with me. If I hadn’t been a journalist, I never could have written this book. It wouldn’t have come close. But, I felt it was something I needed to do before the time comes for me to pass away. I had some very good editors and they did a superb job helping me. It’s very thorough and detailed — although a lot of people might have a hard time understanding the detail, but I can remember the past much more than I can remember present happenings, even though I’ve gotten much better at the present events than when I was first operated on.
Tom: You write about how much you owe to your friends and family, especially your oldest daughter, Hannah. You’ve learned, following your diagnoses, about the importance of relationships. But, what would you say to people who don’t have a serious illness about building relationships?
John: Yeah. If you don’t have those relationships, it puts a new challenge in your life. I’ve never been in that position … but I can just imagine people who are in that position because I’ve talked to so many of them in person and a lot of them have cried on my shoulder. I feel sorry for them, but, at the same time, everyone of them I’ve met who are in that position, I encourage them to try like heck to be positive and optimistic every day. You may not have a lot of best friends, but you can do a lot by yourself and still come out positive in your thinking. That’s a lot of what people in that position would have to do. I look at myself, and I’m very fortunate and I know I am. A lot of my best friends are still from Boone and a great number of friends I went to college with I still talk to regularly, including the editor of The Robesonian in Lumberton (Donnie Douglas). I’m fortunate that I can help people in some ways, and that I have as many friends and family as I do. I hope that people who aren’t in my position can still read my book and realize they can accomplish the same things that I have.
Tom: What did you learn about yourself by writing this memoir that you didn’t know before you began it?
John: That’s a good question. I’ve never had anyone ask me that. The thing I learned the most is that I’ve had a lot of different things happen in my life, including the operation I had in 2008. The amount of things that have happened to me since 2008, I never really thought of as that complicated. But, when I started putting the book together, I realized that there was probably a lot more stuff that happened during the last eight years than I had ever thought of. I’m used to waking up every day and doing what I need to do — go to the doctor, order medicine, whatever that day — and I hadn’t thought about all the complicated issues I have had in my life, just to stay alive. I had never thought about it like that. The book emphasized that for me.
Tom: What do you hope your readers will learn from your book?
John: Let me just say this, I hope it’s a level of inspiration that will help whomever is reading it just because they are interested in the topic or those who read it because they have cancer or a tumor.
Tom: A final question. John, from your story, it appears that your life was on a successful upward trajectory on many fronts, and then you are diagnosed with brain cancer and everything changes. My question is this: Do you have any regrets?
John: The final thing I ever wanted to do in my career, and this is the truth, was to teach at Appalachian State and I got a chance to do that. I thought that was a miracle. I taught (journalism) for three semesters and I got a lot out of it. I think the students did, too. It meant a lot to me, especially since my dad taught there. I don’t have any regrets. The good Lord has talked to me in several different ways, and I just follow his advice. No, I don’t have any regrets. I really don’t. At my age, and being close to Duke (doctors), and being close to my friends in Boone and my family here, I think I’ve got a lot of things to be grateful for.