In spite of heart surgery and bouts with cancer, Keith Isbell maintains a positive outlook on life, surrounded by the tasty pastries baked fresh every day at his Kingwood Panera store. Photo by Tom Broad

Keith Isbell hates cancer.

“It killed my mom. It hit me twice. Cancer must want me,” Isbell said. “I thought, if you want me, come get me. I’ll fight you with everything I’ve got.”

Those are tough words from a tough kid who never really graduated from high school, was a drug addict, ignored all the rules, called himself an atheist, was incarcerated twice – and then transformed himself into a survivor, a loving husband and father, a believer in Jesus Christ, one of America’s premier entrepreneurs, and now, an inspirational author and motivational speaker.

Isbell has written a biography of his troubled times and miraculous rebirth, “Anchored by Grace: How One Man’s Faith Transformed Loss into Miracles,” available at keithisbell.com.

– Panera franchisee writes inspirational biography –

“My brother wanted to write my story, about a kid – me – who made lots of mistakes but took a journey in life and ended up with a successful professional career,” he said.

Isbell said no because he thought it would be self-serving.

“Four months after I told him no, my brother was killed in Montgomery County,” Isbell said. “I wanted to keep my promise that someday we would write that book. I dedicated it to him, Kyle Isbell.”

“Anchored by Grace” originally was a story about Keith Isbell but, as he wrote down what he remembered, it became a story about his faith.

“We all go through adversity but, somehow, I got it all – a heart attack, cancer, the death of my mom, drug addiction, incarceration,” Isbell said. “By telling my true story, I can relate to so many people. I want this book to give hope and encouragement to others.”

Isbell often wonders “…Why me?”

“I don’t want to die,” he said, “but I can’t think of a better person to go through this than me. With my story, I hope to inspire others to find their own strength. As we move through our careers, we desire more and more and more. I hope the younger crowd especially will select quality of life over quantity of life.”

Encouragement is a recurring theme in Isbell’s biography.

“I want readers to finish my book with the thought that they, too, can find encouragement in the most difficult storms in life,” he said. “Those storms are where we find our strength.”

Isbell, 50, grew up in Conroe and “… kind of …” graduated from Conroe High School “…in the bottom 5 percent of my class. I didn’t go to college.”

He did go to prison – twice – for misdemeanors when he was 18. After the second incarceration, he made the critical call to his dad asking for help.

“I was out of prison, no place to go, my mom had died; I called my dad and he gave me a chance – with conditions,” Isbell recalled. “He welcomed me, gave me rules when I needed them. Today, we count on each other. He’s my example.”

Living with Dad, Isbell’s life changed. He got a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant and worked his way up and up and up.

“I found something I was good at,” he said, “and I worked my way up until I got hired by Football Hall of Fame Running Back Walter Payton to run his restaurant complex in Aurora, Ill. That was my big break.”

Today, Isbell holds the franchise record for owning 20 Paneras. More importantly, he’s the husband of Annette and the father of Zach and Sophie. And an author.

He had it all, until the Angel of Death paid a visit bringing heart disease, open-heart surgery, a stroke, and head and neck cancer.

“The doctor gave me a year to live. That caught my attention,” he said. “After I was told that the chemo hadn’t worked this second time around, MD Anderson introduced to me a clinical trial. Turns out that I was approved for two. One was a phase one, mice, monkeys and dogs, but I have chosen the other, which is a second phase.”

Isbell is now participating in that trial.

During these trying days, however, Isbell doesn’t experience much fear or stress.

“When the doctor first told me I had cancer, I realized that the fear of cancer was gone. It had become chronic and an obsession after my mother died from it,” he said. “I understood that getting on the other side of our fear is true. Fear lost its power on me that day.”

In addition to running Panera, Isbell is involved in many church and community events, including Addi’s Faith Foundation, Project Mammogram, and the American Heart Association.

The former atheist, now a disciple of Christ, believes God has been preparing him for this moment.

“I wish I could give everybody around me a pill to see life the way I do now, to see the world the way I do, to see people – even strangers – the way I do,” said Isbell.

But he has given us a pill. It’s “Anchored by Grace,” the biography of an exceptional human being.

To see one of Isbell’s talks or to order his book, visit keithisbell.com.

Tom Broad
Author: Tom BroadEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Columnist
Besides being a proud graduate of The University of Nebraska-Lincoln and, therefore, a Cornhusker, I am retired from Memorial Hermann. I am a correspondent and columnist for Lake Houston's hometown paper, The Tribune, as well as a director of the Lake Houston Redevelopment Corporation, a member of the board of the Humble Area Assistance Ministries, and Volunteer Extraordinaire for the Lake Houston Area Chamber.