George Fetko has been cancer-free for two years but not home-free. Every three months until a 10-year period is up, he must get a checkup to assure his rare form of cancer has not returned.
When Fetko says he considers research “a lifeline,” he’s not exaggerating. Fetko lives with the knowledge his body has withstood all the chemotherapy and radiation it can withstand. Ever.
“Between now and 10 years, if something happens, without research, I’m not treatable,” Fetko said. “Nothing they can do.”
There is something Fetko can do.
Saturday morning, as he has done for the past two years, Fetko, 58, will hop on his bicycle to participate in the Dolphins Cancer Challenge (DCC), helping raise money for research at the University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Fetko lives in Deerfield Beach, and if you’ve ever been up to catch the sunrise along A1A in Palm Beach or Broward counties, there’s a decent chance you’ve seen him. He’s in that pack of cyclists zipping along from Deerfield to Southern Boulevard and back. That’s 50 to 60 miles per day, every day, starting at 5 a.m.
And if he’s pedaling during the DCC, things really get serious. With a motto of “you don’t take any breaks when you fight cancer and I don’t take any breaks on the bike,” Fetko hammered away to finish the 104-mile, non-competitive event in a little more than 4 1/2 hours.
“At a certain point, George Hincapie told me, ‘You’ve gotta slow down,’ ” Fetko said, referring to the former Tour de France teammate of Lance Armstrong. “I said, ‘I didn’t slow down when I fought cancer. I’m not slowing. I trained for this to show I’m back.’ ”
In Fetko’s world, cancer and cycling will always be intertwined.
“If I wasn’t an athlete, I wouldn’t be here,” said Fetko, a retired public works director from Connecticut.
Although he never turned pro, he rides at a high-enough level that he sensed something was wrong when his performance slipped. He had an MRI, which revealed a tumor.
When a month passed and his original doctors still hadn’t figured out what type of cancer he had, he switched to Sylvester.
“I was running out of time,” Fetko said. “I’m scared to death. I know I have cancer, I don’t know what kind of cancer I have and I don’t know what the treatment is going to be.
“In two days, Dr. (Andrew) Rosenberg from the sarcoma team called me up and said, ‘George, you have a very rare type of cancer, so you’re going to have a tough fight, but you’ll make it.’ That’s the difference of dealing with a team that specializes in sarcoma.”
It was a tough fight: chemotherapy six days a week, eight hours a day. Obviously, there were days he couldn’t ride, but mostly, there were days he longed to ride.
“All my life, whenever I got off the bike, I felt better,” he said.
It helped him battle cancer physically and mentally.
“When you first get it, you do a lot of reading about it, which probably isn’t the healthiest thing,” he said. “Whenever you’re on the bike, you can just zone out.”
Six months after chemotherapy, he did his first 104-mile DCC, from Hard Rock Stadium southward before circling around and finishing at CityPlace. He did another 104-miler last year, finishing with Michael Mandich, CEO of the DCC and son of former Dolphins tight end Jim Mandich, an inspiration behind this event who died of cancer in 2011.
This year, Fetko will do the 56-mile ride with his daily group, starting from Boca Raton and finishing at the stadium.
“I just wanted to leave from here,” Fetko said Tuesday afternoon, basking in sunshine at Mizner Park. “It’s home.”
Until recently, the Northeast was home. Having followed the New England Patriots going back to when Steve Grogan was their quarterback, he was delighted to see Tom Brady lead a historic comeback and beat difficult odds in the Super Bowl.
“It just goes to show that you never know what tomorrow’s going to bring,” he said, philosophical words that have meaning beyond football.
As Fetko was undergoing treatment, his insurance company raised his deductible 20-fold without notifying him. Although he couldn’t foot that kind of bill, his doctors assured him he’d get treatment and they’d work out something under the Affordable Care Act, “or I never would have survived.” A favorite memory since then: walking one of his daughters down the aisle.
Now, his oncologist, Dr. Breelyn Wilky, is running the 5K, in part, Fetko suspects, because of his badgering. Fetko considers himself part of “Team Wilky” for the DCC.
Saturday, he figures, is payback for Wilky and Rosenberg.
“It means everything in the world to me to help my doctor with research,” he said.