Coach Who Beat Leukemia Three Times Impacts Team
State College, Pa.–For the first time in two years, Fritz Spence recorded a white blood count in the normal range. The Penn State assistant track and field coach achieved that feat despite an ongoing battle with acute myeloid leukemia.
Spence, 49, who has overcome three relapses since his original 2008 diagnosis, has maintained his multi-event and jumping coaching duties at the university he joined 16 years ago. The coach and his cancer battle have imparted a mental and physical toughness within the Penn State athletic community, according to team members, coworkers and his family.
One former athlete described how the coach’s battle encouraged her to step up and take a larger role in her training group among the multi-eventers and jumpers.
“I felt it was my responsibility to hold his training group together,” said Maddie Holmberg, 25, an All-America and Big Ten champion from Greensburg, Pennsylvania, who is pursuing a master’s degree in nutritional sciences. “I was able to improve upon my leadership skills and the ability to push myself in practice the way he would’ve challenged me if he was there (next to me).”
“One of the key phrases Coach Spence would repeat during his battle is: ‘This too shall pass,’” Holmberg said. “This proclamation reminds us that all discomfort is temporary if you have the courage to keep showing up and moving forward.”
Holmberg said she believes Spence is among the rare group of survivors of the disease because he has continued to coach throughout his recovery.
That continuity has helped another event group on the team, said high jumper Carlie Wilson, of Sparta, New Jersey.
“He really enjoys being with us and it’s an outlet,” said Wilson, 20, a corporate innovation and entrepreneurship major. “Whatever’s best for him is best for us. He’s extremely passionate about track, has made us more passionate about the sport and encourages us to have a positive mindset about the work we’re putting in.”
More than 20,000 new cases of acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, were projected for 2021, according to the American Cancer Society, with the majority of those affected being male and over age 68. About 11,000 sufferers are expected to die from the disease this year, with almost all of them being adults, according to the society.
Spence’s case is rare considering his age at the time of his initial diagnosis, 35, and how long he has survived.
The likelihood of a person over age 20 living at least five years after contracting AML is 26 percent, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
The treatments are ongoing, and Spence said he still feels the effects of the cancer.
“They put a port into my head to do spinal fluid withdrawals. I go every few weeks to get the withdrawals to this day to make sure everything’s OK,” he explained, noting the number of medications he must take.
“After the first round of chemo, I was on 14 to 16 meds three times a day,” before relapses in 2013 and 2019, he said. “Now I’m on six pills three times a day.
The coach, who will turn 50 in August, said telling his story is another way to show that when one has strength and determination, “everything is possible.”
“It takes time, resilience, being focused, not getting too caught up in small things and looking at the big picture to accomplish what you want to accomplish,” he added.
Spence credited his wife and family for keeping him grounded.
“My wife was with me through it all,” he said, of Teri Spence, the director of compliance for Penn State World Campus. The couple have four children.
The oldest, Ashlie, works in admissions for Penn State World Campus. A son, Ashton, has a daughter and is the manager of Primanti Bros. in State College. Another daughter, Keiva lives in Texas. The youngest, Ale’ka, 19, will be attending Penn State this spring.
Teri Spence said she is amazed by her husband’s strength and does not think she would have been capable of fighting the disease like him.
“Fritz has proved to me that anything is possible, and we must be grateful every single day for our lives and our loved ones,” she said
Her role, she added, has been to take care of everything on the outside while he fights the disease on the inside.
“I acted as his patient advocate, secured shelter, medicine, food, anything he would need,” she said, describing how she had administered 15 or more medicines at a time and flushed his port lines. “I’ve even administered chemo for him.”
“Fritz has proved to me that anything is possible, and we must be grateful every single day for our lives and our loved ones.” Teri Spence
The Spence saga has not gone unnoticed by the university
The head coach of the track and field program said Fritz Spence’s attitude inspires the team and is an example of how no matter how bleak things look, a positive mindset and personal belief can help one overcome all obstacles.
“Coach Spence is such an integral part of what we do here,” said head coach John Gondak. “He is a great representative of Penn State values.”