By Todd Ceisner
This is a love story.
A love story about a man and the water and the relief it provides him.
When Jonathan Henry is on the front deck of his Charger bass boat, he doesn’t have synovial sarcoma, one of the rarest forms of soft tissue cancer known to man.
He isn’t flying off to Texas to see one of the top sarcoma doctors in the field, hoping his tumors haven’t grown or spread.
He isn’t the guy who struggles to get out of bed most days and gets his butt kicked by a daily dose of chemotherapy pills every now and then.
He isn’t the rail-thin, bald-headed guy whose wife has to dye his eyebrows brown to maintain some normalcy in his appearance (the pills turn his hair white).
“You can’t have a conversation with someone who has white eyebrows,” Henry says.
When Henry is fishing, either in an FLW Tour event or during a guide trip at Lake Guntersville, he’s free. Carefree. Cancer-free.
“For all the sad parts and the parts that suck,” Henry says, “the one great thing about it is fishing tournaments because being out there on tournament days are the times I don’t have cancer. On derby days, I totally forget that I have cancer. That’s the great thing about it. It’s all worth it because this is the only place I can get away from it.
“No matter how bad it sucks, I always have fishing.”
Desire to Inspire
Henry received his diagnosis in the fall of 2015 and endured a rigorous four-month long chemotherapy regimen. His hair fell out. He lost a bunch of weight. He’s still dealing with the side effects.
He knows he’ll never get that “You’re cancer-free” phone call from doctors and he still makes regular trips from his home in Grant., Ala., to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, but now they are every three months rather than bi-monthly.
He still has tumors inside him, but they’re smaller than a golf ball and haven’t grown. Surgery isn’t a viable treatment option, though, because his doctors have told him the form of cancer he has likely has already spread microscopically.
So, he’s now committed to making as many casts as he can possibly make with the hope that his determination and newfound faith might inspire someone in a similar situation or bring a ray of light to someone going through a dark time in their life.
“I want to be known as the guy who has cancer and went fishing anyway,” he said. “If they can see what I did and get one more day out of life, then so be it. I’m here for them. I’m not here for the healthy guys. They don’t know a problem until they see a slick-headed guy pushing an IV pole down the hallway.
“I post on cancer forums just to share with people that I’m doing this. It’s like saying, ‘You can go walk your dog tomorrow. Get up and do it. It’s okay. I’m fishing the Tour.’”
Henry said he has relied on his faith through his cancer journey and implores others to do the same.
“I found religion through this experience and I’m able to reach people about religion and the disease,” he said. “I’m comfortable opening up about either one now. I don’t think you can mentally handle this without some sort of religion.”
‘I Still Know How To Catch ‘Em’
Through five events, Henry is 109th in FLW Tour points, a respectable marker considering what he deals with on a daily basis. Sure, he has stories of lost fish and woulda, coulda, shoulda done this or that, but those aren’t important.
His stamina isn’t what it used to be and probably never will be. He skips practice days or cuts them short because of fatigue. Every night before bed, he swallows four pills (a protein inhibitor) and every so often those pills turn his stomach upside down.
But he wasn’t going to let any of that stop him from achieving his goal of competing at the highest level of the sport. Jason Christie, who used to room and practice with Henry when he fished the FLW Tour, maintains that Henry is among the best fishermen he’s ever been in a boat with. Henry has won an FLW Series tournament and had a runner-up finish in another, but the Tour is what he always aspired to.
“It’s a major accomplishment,” Henry said. “It’s what I always wanted to do, the level I always wanted to fish at. When I got sick, my goal was to live. Now I’ve made it so this is a life accomplishment. When I was laying there in that chemo chair, that’s what I thought about: ‘I just want to fish again.’
“My only issue is my body isn’t there like it was. I don’t know if it’s coming back, to be honest.”
Only part of his left lung is functional due to the cancer and as a result he suffers from scoliosis, a curving of the spine, that has led to other challenges.
Henry hopes his story inspires people in situations similar to his to not give up fighting.
“Your lungs help keep the spacing in your ribs correct so without that lung pushing out, one side can collapse,” he said. “The spacing in my ribs isn’t what it was. Thus, I have scoliosis. It isn’t painful, but it hurts from time to time. It’s caused issues in my shoulders … things you don’t even think about.”
He’s done physical therapy and massage therapy, but still his body isn’t as responsive as it once was.
“My mind is still okay,” he said. “I still know how to catch ‘em.”
Different Kind of Grind
Fishing has been Henry’s life, job and passion for many years. He operates the Bass Whacker Guide Service at Guntersville and used to be on the water up to 300 days a year.
Now, his energy gets sapped quicker, especially in warmer weather, and he’s noticed he’s not as efficient as he used to be on the water.
“I’m starting to notice I’m not covering water as well as I used to,” he said. “I’d get a couple bites and tear down every bank that looked the same. Now, I’ll hit three banks and say, ‘I’m good.’ Just physically, I’m not as good at covering water.”
It’s not an excuse. It’s just his reality. He’s already pushed harder and further than most would in his situation and he plans to continue on this course because it offers him that escape.
“I can stay home and draw unemployment or disability, but I can’t get away from cancer,” he said. “It’s at the house, it’s everywhere. People ask how I’m doing and I know they don’t really want to hear it, but I’m getting more comfortable with telling the truth. I’m probably going to die.
“I love to hunt, but I can’t get away from it because it’s so quiet out there. Tournament days are the only place something cool enough and fun enough can happen to clear my mind from cancer.”
Many of the companies that sponsored Henry prior to his diagnosis – Scottsboro Tackle Company, Pradco, Falcon Rods, D&E Landing, Air Hydro Power – are still supporting him. His gratitude for that is immeasurable, he says. It’s helped him focus more on fighting his daily battles that are now part of his routine.
“I’m always going to have to deal with it. It’s more than a fear. It’s a definite,” he said. “I still have it. They did as best they could to get rid of most of it. Some people get longer than others; some people get shorter than others.”
Through social media, Henry has connected with other people who also suffer from various forms of sarcoma. He says it’s helped him understand his situation better.
“I’ve been able to meet people who have this disease,” he said. “Back in the '80s, before the Internet, you’d never know. Now, you can share stories and doctors and ideas.”
He’s thankful he’s bounced back to the point he’s able to lead as normal of a life as possible.
“Some people find out they have it and then pass away, so I’ve lived longer than most,” he said. “This thing is eventually going to kill me. I just hope it’s 30 years from now. This isn’t a cancer you get good from. It’s a lifelong thing. It’s a bad dude. Every day is a blessing.”