Ritter's story defies the odds
WORTHINGTON -- After 47 years as a math teacher, Al Ritter knows all about odds.
He also knows that the odds should have been against him when, in 2009, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. That type of cancer often includes a dismal prognosis, and Ritter was overwhelmed to learn his odds of survival were somewhere between 13 percent and 25 percent -- just one or two people of every 10 diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus live to tell about it.
Ritter credits his survival -- he'll be three years cancer-free later this year -- to the power of prayer and miracles that came in the form of surgeons and early detection. He will share his journey with cancer during the opening ceremony Friday night at the Nobles County Relay for Life at the fairgrounds in Worthington. The program begins at 7 p.m.
While a bit nervous about giving his speech, Ritter said he believes he survived cancer for a reason, and that is to tell others about his experience.
"For two years I was thinking, 'Should I be doing something? Is there a reason I was one or two of 10 that survive?'" he said, adding that the first time he spoke publicly about his journey with cancer was in a program to fellow members of Worthington's Early Risers Kiwanis club.
Ritter's story began in March 2009, when he was scheduled for heart surgery at the Avera Heart Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D.
"I had a defective valve," he said.
While doctors replaced the valve, they discovered an aneurism and performed a single bypass on Ritter's heart. That was his first miracle.
The second came the following morning when, served oatmeal for breakfast, Ritter found he could not swallow the food.
Doctors knew there was a problem, but Ritter's body needed to heal before he was put through another battery of tests. An appointment was made for six weeks post-surgery, during which Ritter would meet with a gastroenterologist.
An esophageal scope procedure was done at Avera-McKennan Hospital, and it was determined a stint would be placed in Ritter's throat. He returned to the hospital two weeks later to have the stint replaced with a larger one. Two weeks after that, he returned to doctors once again.
"When they went in to remove (the stint), it had slid into my stomach," Ritter said.
When the gastroenterologist went in to remove the stint that had fallen into the stomach, he noticed some suspicious tissue in Ritter's esophagus.
"He took five or six different tissue biopsies," Ritter said, adding that he was told of the biopsies after he awoke from the procedure. "The doctor said, 'I can tell you right now it's almost certainly cancerous.' He knew what cancer looked like."
Ritter said he "didn't bat an eyelash" when he was given the news. He'd long thought his bouts with acid reflux during his 30s could someday return to haunt him. Reflux is one of the ailments associated with esophageal cancer.
"Within two weeks I was starting my radiation and chemo treatments," Ritter said. He was able to take his 28 radiation treatments at the Sanford Health Cancer Center in Worthington, but his five chemotherapy sessions were scheduled in Sioux Falls.
The chemo "sapped" his strength, but he lost little hair and only suffered slight redness from the radiation treatments.
When the treatments were completed, Ritter was told he needed surgery.
"I didn't give them the word right away because they said it would be a life-changing surgery," he said. "I did some research and it didn't take me long to figure out if I didn't have the surgery, I wouldn't be around for very much longer."
Ten days after his consent, Ritter was wheeled into surgery. There, under the work of two surgeons, another miracle surfaced. One of the doctors found a tiny speck of cancer on one of Ritter's lymph nodes.
"I have no idea how they found it, but they did," he said, adding that the discovery led to four more chemo treatments.
"It was just a series of miracles that one thing led to another, just in time for it to be fixed," Ritter shared. "The odds of these things happening at exactly the right moment so they could be fixed.... They told me if I wouldn't have had the (esophageal) surgery, that I wouldn't have made it a year. Once cancer gets in the lymph nodes, it just goes like wildfire."
On Dec. 21, 2010, Ritter was told by his oncologist that he was cancer-free. The news still brings a broad smile to his face.
Today, Ritter's oncologist calls him a walking miracle. He continues to get good reports at his checkups every six months.
"I gotta tell you, there was a lot of prayer involved," he said of his journey.
His church family at First Baptist, along with friends from Early Risers Kiwanis, chauffeured him to doctor appointments and cancer treatments, and prayed for him along the way. And, even though he lives alone, Ritter always had a friend or sibling lending an ear.
"My sister and two brothers ... never tired of talking with me," he said. "They were always available to listen -- to let me talk and get things off my chest. They were always right there.
"In a way, this was kind of a blessing -- all of this happening to me," Ritter added. "I've learned a lot about myself. From the start, I said to myself, 'You're not going to accept this, you're going to fight this tooth and nail. You're not going to give up.'"
Ritter moved to Worthington 47 years ago to teach math at what was then the junior high. While he's never attended a Relay for Life event, Ritter is looking forward to participating in the program Friday night.
"I think it's great," he said of the funds raised at Relays to help the American Cancer Society. "In the last 13 months, I've made seven contributions myself to the American Cancer Society. I've known about the American Cancer Society, but I've never affiliated with them before. It's great that I'm finally associated with them in some way."
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.