Right out of the gate, powerful people were expecting great things from a 1977 Columbus North High School graduate named John Brown.
Just after he earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from Ball State University, Brown was hired as an aide for then-Indiana Lt. Gov. John Mutz.
One year later, the son of James and Mary Alice Brown found himself in Washington, D.C., employed as an assistant to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.
When Brown returned to his home state in 1985, he became a member of former Indiana Gov. Robert Orr’s staff. And while he entered the private sector to work for Electronic Data Systems, Brown wasn’t complete away from politics. EDS was, after all, owned by two-time independent presidential candidate Ross Perot.
Nevertheless, Brown had a deep desire to move back to his hometown, he said. The opportunity presented itself when he was hired by the now-defunct Arvin Industries.
During most of his time with the company, Brown held the title of vice president of public relations. Voters also chose him to serve 10 years on the Columbus City Council.
But as a new century was about to arrive, the road began to get bumpy. When Arvin merged with Meritor in 2000, Brown unexpectedly found himself unemployed. Eventually, he was able to find work with the Rolls-Royce manufacturing facilities in Indianapolis.
Later, he accepted a job with the Catero Group, a software development firm. Unfortunately, the job required Brown to move his wife and family from his beloved hometown to Raleigh, North Carolina.
And then came one of the most frightening experiences anyone could ever face.
On Sept. 6, 2011, Brown underwent a tonsillectomy, which is generally considered a safe procedure. But when his surgeon called him, he got the word that his left tonsil contained cancer cells. Immediately, Brown was placed on an aggressive treatment schedule, he said.
“I went to surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, a second surgery, and was at the hospital for four weeks,” Brown recalls. “My kidneys started to fail because of the chemotherapy. And at one point, the physicians thought I might have to be put on dialysis.”
While undergoing treatment in what is now the Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute in Charlotte, North Carolina, Brown knew the treatments he received killed more than cancer cells.
At first, medical experts gave Brown a 37% chance of surviving another five years. But after that threshold was behind him, oncologists said Brown had a 43% chance to live 10 years.
That time is also up. Brown said he was recently told he has a greater chance of getting hit over by a car than reacquiring cancer.
And when he gets a call from his oncologist, it’s usually a request for the positive-minded Brown to talk to cancer patients and try to bring them encouragement.
Fear is a natural reaction after learning you have cancer, Brown said. When he received his diagnosis, he was less than 10 years younger than his mother had been when cancer claimed her life in the 1990s.
Every time he speaks today, Brown is reminded of the painful treatment he experienced. That’s because the radiation left one of his vocal chords paralyzed, giving him a raspy speaking voice.
“So yeah, it scares you,” Brown said. “And if something else negative happens, you begin to wonder if this is ever going to end. You start asking questions like ‘Why is God doing this to me?’ or ‘What did I ever do to deserve this’?”
But in hindsight, Brown says he realizes he was asking himself the wrong questions.
“What you should ask yourself is, whether you go to heaven or stay on Earth, what are you going to do to live the way God wants you to live?” Brown said. “Now, I know everybody is not a Christian, but most people believe in something greater than themselves. You know that power has control of you, and you want to make sure you are living the life you want to live.”
However, Brown doesn’t let that get him down, thanks to examples of positive attitudes he recalls from his youth, such as former Columbus North football coach Bill McCaa and former First Christian Church minister Ard Hoven.
“They taught me that if you keep a good attitude, you’ll get better and beat it,” Brown remembers. “I never went to bed asking the good Lord to take me now because I’m tired of the pain. Instead, I just prayed that I make it to tomorrow — and let me worry about tomorrow then.”
Having a competitive spirit has also helped the former Arvin vice-president forge ahead to meet life’s challenges, he said.
“If you start to give up, you have to refocus your thoughts and energies,” Brown said. “While you can have great medical care, you also have to have the will to fight.”
Brown currently works as the chief executive officer of the Carolinas Independent Automobile Dealers Association. He was named top executive of the year at the annual meeting of the National Independent Automobile Dealers Association in San Antonio, Texas.
The award recognizes strong leadership, achievements and contributions that have substantially advanced the industry and association.
For Brown, a significant motivator to fight back came from an unorthodox source: Chick-fil-A.
His wife, Katherine, became very concerned because her husband’s throat was so burned up from radiation that he couldn’t eat and barely could drink. And if he did eat something, he was unable to taste it, Brown said.
So Katherine Brown decided to stop at a Chick-fil-A restaurant and bought her husband a spicy chicken sandwich.
“That was the first thing I remember tasting after I started treatment,” Brown said. “I started eating Chick-fil-A spicy sandwiches every day for a long time. It kept me alive.”
So are chicken sandwiches the key to surviving cancer? Brown says the real key is anything that picks up your spirits.
Those diagnosed with cancer should feel encouraged that treatments have improved significantly over the past 10 years, and extensive research is ongoing at universities and medical centers all over the world, he said.
Instead of traditional chemotherapy, oncologists have begun treating their patients with immunotherapies, Brown said. The procedures involve using substances to stimulate or suppress the immune system to help the body fight cancer, infection, and other diseases. Results are often achieved by targeting only certain cells of the immune system.
“Find something so you don’t give up,” he said. “Even if it’s only an itty-bitty light at the proverbial end of the tunnel, you just have to walk forward.”