June 7, 2024

A legacy of love and generosity fuels Fish Family Fight Against Cancer

A large family of smiling and standing with a doctor.

In 1985, Fran Fish was preparing to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville when she collapsed weeks prior to her graduation ceremony.

Fran, the youngest of nine siblings raised on a farm in Rock Springs, Wis., was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. The 23-year-old immediately began treatment at UW Health | Carbone Cancer Center, and she was curatively treated after months of intense treatments.

Fran and her family were so grateful for the compassion and care given by her oncology team they wanted to give back. The Fish family, with the support of the Reedsburg community, have been strong fundraisers for Carbone’s research and other cancer assistance programs.

This year, Fish Family Fight Against Cancer raised $25,000 for Carbone at their 22nd Annual Fish Family Steak Feed & 9-Pin Bowling. Dick Fish, Fran’s brother, said the event has raised $465,000 since it began, with the majority of those funds going to Carbone.

“We’d rather give to the UW Carbone Cancer Center, where everything you donate goes directly to research,” he said.

Fran’s diagnosis in 1985 came after weeks of the family worrying about her weight loss and frequent bouts of bronchitis. After Fran collapsed, doctors discovered a mass the size of a deflated soccer ball in her chest.

At the time, Hodgkin lymphoma was treated with multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation on the tumor site, according to Dr. Howard Bailey, Carbone’s director who became Fran’s follow-up oncologist a few years after she finished treatments. While the method was curative, oncologists later learned the treatments were more aggressive than necessary, creating new health issues.

“Right or wrong, the fact that we even had a curative treatment made people ecstatic,” he said, given the limited treatment options at that time. “Nowadays, we know that that much chemotherapy, but especially the radiation treatments, created a higher risk of developing other cancers later in life.”

Knowing that cancer impacts many families besides their own, Fran and her family became very active in the Reedsburg Relay for Life before starting the Fish Family Fight Against Cancer. Held the first Saturday in February, their event involves a 9-pin bowling tournament, steak feed, silent auction and other family-friendly activities.

Bailey was early in his medical career when he met Fran, and he remained her follow-up oncologist for many years. He enjoyed her friendly, energetic personality and her sense of humor. He also got to know her family well during her treatment and enjoys participating in their annual fundraiser.

“They’re a fun, gregarious group,” he said. “They embraced me, and it’s hard not to stay involved with them.”

Nearly 20 years after she was first cured of her Hodgkin lymphoma, Fran was diagnosed in 2003 with breast and gastric cancers and passed away at age 41. Another sibling, Paul Fish, died in 2016 after battling bile duct cancer. The annual event serves as a memorial for their siblings and also honors other family members faced with cancer.

Don Fish, Fran’s brother, highlighted the strong support of local businesses and community donors who are happy to sponsor lanes, donate silent auction items, and contribute monetary donations to the cause.

Knowing the hardships that come with a cancer diagnosis, the Fish family also reserves some of its fundraising dollars each year to support the community. Reedsburg-area cancer patients and families simply need to reach out to a Fish family member for help with expenses like groceries and gas cards.

“I think that’s why we get such a strong draw,” said Monica Atkinson, Fran’s sister. “Reedsburg is an incredible community for this. I think it’s because of the representation that we have in the community. They know where it’s going, and it’s going to be used well.”

In addition to their annual event becoming a favorite family-friendly tradition for the community, it also serves as a reunion for the many extended Fish family members who help run the day’s festivities. Fran’s siblings are excited to see the next generation family members taking on leadership roles to keep the fundraiser going strong.

“We have this unifying tradition for our family, where we know we’re hosting a great event and doing great things. It’s so incredible to have this underlying focus because of those we love, and we can share their stories. No one should be alone in their cancer journey,” said Fran’s sister, Denise Yontz.