For Penn State track and field assistant coach Fritz Spence, there is more to coaching than devising a strategy or teaching fundamentals. It’s about passion, commitment, and maintaining a positive attitude feelings that become even more important when fighting cancer.
In July, Spence was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia, a rare cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow, for the second time in five years. Over the last five months, he has undergone multiple rounds of chemotherapy, a bone marrow biopsy and cell-growth injections. Through it all, he has maintained his commitment to the team, coming into his office to study film and attending practice whenever he can.
“I’ve always wanted to be a coach since I was a little youth,” Spence said. “This is my passion. This is what I enjoy being around. Even when I am sick, I come to the track and I feel a lot better. It gives me some sense of not worrying about the illness — to just worry about the track. I think it’s a good avenue for me to take my mind off of everything that’s going on and what’s coming next.”
The allure of the track and the desire to teach his athletes kept Spence motivated during his difficult battle with cancer. While on chemotherapy during his first diagnosis, he would still attend track meets, sometimes taking his medication while on the track.
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“I think it gave me strength,” he said. “It gave me encouragement. It gave me the desire to push through it.”
After receiving a successful transplant of white blood cells from his brother Calvin in 2008, he was able to enter remission and live cancer-free.
Five years later, while enjoying the July 4th holiday weekend, he began feeling a nagging pain in his hamstring. He thought it was just a simple muscle strain, something that might have happened from frequent traveling with the team or bike riding with his daughter. But the pain kept coming back, so he and his wife decided to err on the side of caution and visit the emergency room. That’s when they received the bad news.
“We went to the emergency room and did some blood work, and immediately everything changed,” Spence said. “A different doctor came in, and said, ‘We did some blood tests, and everything is abnormal. We have to send you to Hershey Medical Center. And right then I knew. It was like, Wow. It’s back again.’”
Faced with yet another bout with cancer, Spence did not feel sorry for himself. He believes that if he beat it once, he can beat it again.
“I didn’t feel sad or anything,” he said. “I just know that this is another obstacle I have to get over. I’ve been treated before, and I think with the help of the Good Lord I could beat it again.”
To show support for their coach, members of the track and field team have organized an event called “Fit for Fritz”, a walk-a-thon dedicated to help raise money for him and his family. The event will take place from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sunday at the indoor track in the Multi-Sport Facility, and will conclude with a final celebration and tailgate. All proceeds from Sunday’s event will go directly to the Fritz Spence Project, a fund created by Spence’s family to help pay for medical bills, pharmaceutical co-pays, and travel expenses. To date, the fund has received $6,000 — close to half of its stated $15,000 goal.
For helping him get through these difficult times, Spence credits the support of his wife, Teri, his family, the Penn State community, and of course, the track and field team.
“The team is a family,” he said. “They give me strength, just like I give them strength and support. They give me support. They give me a notion to continue to do work, continue to push through this, continue to get through my illness. From the coaching staff down to the trainers, everybody’s very supportive, very excited. They give you a lot of love, and this is a great environment to be around.”
Spence is currently in remission and awaiting word on a transplant. Doctors had originally planned to undergo a transplant using his sister’s cells, but it was called off in late October after they discovered she had medical complications. His brother Calvin still remains as a “Plan B”, but doctors are cautious since the cancer returned in less than five years after the last transplant.
According to a blog post by Teri Spence on the donation website for the Fritz Spence Project, a donor on the Bone Marrow Registry has been identified and has confirmed she is “willing and able” to donate. Tentatively, the transplant will happen within the next 2-3 weeks, which will allow Spence to return to a sense of normalcy and continue to do what he loves.
“My attitude is to get the transplant done as soon as I can so I can get back on the track to help the team to a championship season,” he said.
Remarkably, even during a time of high stress and anxiety, he’s focused on preparing his team to compete in the Big Ten and post yet another successful season.
“Those young ladies work real hard,” he said. “My goal is to teach them how to be more efficient, to be more technically sound, to get them stronger and faster. All they have to do is listen and follow my lead.”