Gale Fritsche of LTS wasn’t expecting to wake up from his very first colonoscopy to see two doctors standing over him telling him they’d found a tumor. A lifelong runner and cyclist who had always been conscientious about his health, he had no inkling anything was wrong. Yet stage 3 colon cancer was lurking in his body.
“They said they needed to do surgery right away,” he recalled. “That was when my life changed.”
A month after surgery, Gale started six months of chemotherapy in bi-weekly cycles. The chemo nauseated him, but during the off weeks when he would feel a bit better, he started riding his bike again as an outlet.
The emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis can be as significant as the physical. Gale says it was a rollercoaster at first. “Depression, anxiety, you go through all that,” he recalls. “My recommendation to people going through a cancer diagnosis is to stay as physically active as you can. It helps your mental state. And talk to someone, talk to a counselor, friends, family.” For Gale, his bicycle riding groups were like a support group.
As the months went by and the chemotherapy side effects took their toll, Gale reflected on how little he had known about the risks of colon cancer. Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths. And in people under the age of 50, it is often misdiagnosed.
“People are walking around with colon cancer silently killing them,” he said. “I’ve talked to people of all ages who have had it; it’s not an old person’s disease. I decided I needed to do something.”
Gale looked for an organization to support his idea of a bike ride to raise funds for colon cancer awareness. Through research, he found the Colon Cancer Coalition, a group that partners with local organizations who keep 70 percent of the funds for local use. Cancer hadn’t robbed him of his sense of humor. Gale dubbed his ride the Tour de Tush.
The first ever Tour de Tush in 2015 raised $30,000, with Olympus signing on as a major sponsor. The largest groups of riders came from Lehigh and Olympus. More than forty volunteers, including Lehigh colleagues, helped the event run smoothly.
Getting The Word Out
The funds raised are now being used for local awareness messages, including billboards around the Lehigh Valley this month. The 2016 ride, taking place in June, is already shaping up to be bigger and more successful.
Gale has organized a conference to help medical students and professionals better care for patients. He will also be sharing his story at the Colon-rectal Cancer Community Forum on March 23. He will talk to anyone who will listen. He’s been on TV and radio and will speak on panels -- anything to get the word out.
“That’s what I was put on this earth to do, to help save lives through outreach,” said Gale. “That’s how I feel. I don’t know what really clicked in my head, but it’s what helped me through the tough times.”
Even before the first Tour de Tush riders pedaled their first mile, Gale had already made a difference. “The volunteer DJ at the event was on stage during the start and heard the stories of colon cancer survivors,” Gale recalled. “He was 57 and had never had a colonoscopy, but after the event he was motivated to go to the doctor. They found stage 2 colon cancer.”
Gale visited him in the hospital. “His wife came to me and hugged me and said, ‘Thanks for saving his life.’”
Recounting the story, Gale gets a bit choked up. This is his mission now. “It’s a permanent part of me,” he recently told his doctor. “As long as I’m on two feet, I’m going to be part of this.”
This year’s Tour De Tush will be held June 11, starting from Grange Park in Allentown. Riders can ride solo or form teams and can choose from 30-mile or metric century (100km/62 mile) routes. For more information, visit the event website.