John Tesh's Cancer Returned During the Pandemic: 'I Went Back Into the Trenches'

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John Tesh
John Tesh

connie sellecca

John Tesh was having trouble sleeping.

"I woke up with an enormous amount of pain one morning in October 2020 — I had pain in both my legs," the composer, 69, tells PEOPLE. "It turned out there were two tumors around either side of my pelvis and wrapped around my organs."

After Tesh went in for scans, he learned his cancer had returned, five years after he was first diagnosed with a rare form of prostate cancer. Back then, doctors told him he had 18 months to live. "It was a get-your-affairs-in-order speech," he recalls.

Tesh says he did not take the initial diagnosis well and started "drinking heavily" and combining alcohol with painkillers. "When you're in that situation — we thought I was terminally ill — that identity gives you a lot of free rein," he explains. "The doctor wants you to have Vicodin so you can feel better, and people look the other way when you're drinking scotch every night and mixing the two."

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He credits his wife Connie Sellecca for putting a stop to it.

"Ultimately my wife and I went toe-to-toe and she said, 'I am not going to abide this. This is my battle too. And you're giving up.' "

Sellecca, who has been married to Tesh for 30 years, has championed him throughout his cancer ordeal. "If she hadn't been my advocate and such a brilliant study of prostate cancer, I wouldn't have made it," says Tesh, adding that the in-depth knowledge she gained over the years was enough to impress doctors. "We would go in and meet new doctors, and after about a half hour of talking they would turn to her and say, 'Are you in the medical field?' "

John Tesh
John Tesh

connie sellecca John Tesh and Connie Sellecca

Before the pandemic canceled his live tour, Tesh would share his cancer journey with fans on stage by emphasizing the power of healing. "I often talk about the principle of embracing suffering as part of what we have to deal with on this planet," he says. "It's sort of become a ministry for me, which is seeking out people's hearts and helping them understand that God does not create sickness. The promise of the nature of God is healing, he is on your side."

Of the latest cancer recurrence, Tesh tells PEOPLE, "I went back into the trenches — I was battle ready." While he needed several surgeries and chemotherapy treatments, he felt more prepared to deal with his illness this time. "I felt less like a guy who was sick trying to get well and more like somebody who was healed well resisting sickness."

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Although the tumors left only one kidney functional and Tesh had his prostrate removed, he is currently cancer-free and says he is generally feeling well.

Now Tesh and Sellecca try to help other couples struggling with cancer. "This is a couple's disease; it affects the whole family," he says. "We made it clear to our doctors that if there were couples going through this battle, especially with prostate cancer, here's our phone number. Because prostate cancer breaks up marriages, it breaks up relationships. People can't take it, it freaks them out."

In addition to Sellecca, Tesh's son Gib Gerard and daughter Prima Tesh helped keep his spirits up over the last year. "They kept me away from people who were uncomfortable with my illness," he says, noting his appreciation for the protective "cocoon" of his family.

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Tesh plans to talk about all he has learned in his first live streaming concert event on Oct. 9.

"There's going to be a lot on there about hope and motivation and stories of healing," he says. "I'll be talking to people and answering people's questions about what I did." Interspersed between 12 original songs will be "messages about inspiration and hope and really specific detail about how I approached healing in my life."

Throughout it all, Tesh has learned "the mind is a very powerful organ." While his faith in healing comes from religious beliefs, he acknowledges that people can find their own faith in many different places.

"A lot of us learned this during COVID: 'I can either spend the next year and a half worrying, or I can renew my mind and get busy with my life.' "