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John Tesh puts cancer survival front and center in ‘Relentless’

The Emmy-winning TV anchor and pianist opens up about his frank, career-spanning new memoir.

TAMPA — John Tesh curled his 6-foot-6 frame into a row at Tampa’s David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts and looked up at the stage like he’d never seen it before.

“Oh, that’s a nice-looking screen,” he said. “This screen is such a huge part of our show, because a lot of our stuff is synced up to what I talk about.”

There was a time when it might never have come to fruition. Five years ago, the pianist and television personality was diagnosed with prostate cancer and told to get his affairs in order.

Tesh’s recovery from cancer forms the backbone of his latest and most personal memoir, Relentless: Unleashing a Life of Purpose, Grit and Faith. Unlike his previous, more inspirational books, Tesh, 67, digs deeper into his rise as a television anchor, his musical career — including the career-making PBS special Live at Red Rocks and his iconic NBA on NBC theme, Roundball Rock — and his marriage to actress Connie Sellecca.

His current tour, the one with the giant screen, features Tesh telling stories from his book between songs, building a whole stage story from his career and cancer recovery.

“This is a very emotional experience for people, especially when there’s photos of me in the middle of chemo and surgery,” he said.

Before the show, he sat down to talk about his book, his career and more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Did you ever come to Tampa on assignment, for Super Bowls or anything like that?

I was in Europe covering the Tour de France; I think I was at a Nice triathlon. I got a call from Peter Tortorici, who bought events for CBS Sports. He said, “We need you to get to Tampa. Mercedes just bought a two-hour horse-jumping event.”

If you’ve ever seen Best in Show, I was the Fred Willard character. Peter said, “I’ll have a packet waiting for you when you land. Just do the bios, do the color.” After 10 minutes of doing everybody’s bio, it was, “So ... what color is that one?” “What if they don’t want to jump?” “What’s his name?” It was really like, “How much do you think I can bench press?”

I remember the executive producer of CBS Sports calling me up after and saying, “Well, you made it through.” I said, “What did you think?” He goes, “The worst sports programming ever on television. And you led the way!”

So yeah, that was my last memory of Tampa.

Was this book always gestating, or was it only after your cancer battle that you thought, “I need to get my life story on paper”?

First of all, I didn’t think I had a life story. But when I got the cancer and I was cured, HarperCollins came and said, “This is an interesting story. Do you have any other stories about your life?” When my outline contained things like living in a tent, homeless, at 19, I went through it and I thought, Wow. The Red Rocks story, of us risking everything, there’s an entrepreneur story in there as well.

Given everything you’ve been through in the last five years, when you come to a dot on the map like Tampa, is there a part of you that’s like, "This might be the last time I come here”?

No, it’s the other way. I have an enormous amount of energy. However, when I got the diagnosis in 2015, I became a “cancer patient." I did the thing, like, “I’m 63, I’ve done a few things, I wrote this theme, I got two kids, I got three grandkids ...” I was making plans. Let’s drink more scotch. I don’t give a s--- about my diet. I had really given up. And then when the suffering began, I was really done. I had kettle bells in my backyard. I figured I would just tie them to my ankle and jump in the pool. I just said to Connie, “Kill me. This is so terrible.”

Have folks come up to you with their own cancer stories?

It’s almost like everybody was waiting: “Tell me your story, and then I’ll tell you mine.” Tonight, at the end of the show, there will be 100 people (waiting), and 60 percent of them will want to talk about a different way to pray. You also meet a lot of people who — like I did — have accepted their sickness, and are continuing to speak death over themselves. That’s the big message here. I’ve always wanted to share my faith on the stage, but it always seemed so awkward. Now that it’s a testimony, I’m just telling you my story. I’m not preaching. I’m just telling you what happened.

Relentless: Unleashing a Life of Purpose, Grit and Faith

By John Tesh

Nelson Books/HarperCollins Christian, 239 pages, $28.99