First of all, I have to tell you I’m the one who added 2 pictures here of Alex. He wouldn’t have done it. He looks damn good, but he’s humble. [Left, he gets his first ‘survivor’s rose.’ On next page, running, feet not touching the ground]. Alex is my friend and our first conversation ever was about cancer. I asked Alex to write this; Lance Armstrong to him is more than a bicycle, and more than a lie. – Rosi
I’m a cancer survivor. In fact, I’ve faced this disease twice so far and have seen my life forever changed by it in ways good and bad. It’s a disease that we will all face either as patients or as caregivers at some point in our lives. Here in New Jersey this year, just under 50,000 people will be diagnosed and 16,000 will die from cancer according to the American Cancer Society. Many of us have a personal story to tell about our cancer experience. There are the lives lost to this disease, such as that of the late Congressman Donald Payne. And then there are stories of people who have survived the disease, people like US Senator Frank Lautenberg.
My own introduction to cancer came in October 1996 when I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. As I would learn much later, a champion cyclist by the name of Lance Armstrong was also diagnosed with testicular cancer that very same month, his case being far more severe and with much worse odds of survival than mine. I’ll state upfront that I have something of an aversion to organized sports, especially those that seem to combine adulation of athletes with huge amounts of money. So it wouldn’t be until 2008, when I was diagnosed with TC a second time, that I even came to hear about Lance Armstrong and the organization he founded soon after his diagnosis: the LIVESTRONG Foundation.
That second diagnosis left me angry and frustrated and with no way to channel those feelings. That is, until I found out about the LIVESTRONG Challenge: an annual series of running and biking events organized to raise money for the foundation’s many programs focused on helping newly diagnosed patients deal with the treatment, financial, emotional and recovery challenges cancer presents. LIVESTRONG also takes a role in public policy by supporting initiatives at the state and Federal levels to combat cancer and it would go onto to push for national healthcare reform so more people would have access to cancer care.
But for me, that first Challenge was much more than a fundraising opportunity on behalf of a charitable organization. It became transformative experience in that I went to it still feeling like a cancer victim but left feeling like a cancer survivor. And therein lies the power and the appeal of LIVESTRONG: it was the first of organization of its kind to make a mission out of ending the stigma of cancer – the idea that it is inevitably fatal and that its sufferers are to be pitied – and empowering people facing the disease to take command of their treatment and their lives after treatment. I merely walked the 5K course at that first Challenge but, inspired by everyone around me, I’ve gone back to every Challenge in the years since, each time taking on new physical challenges: running a 5K twice, twice cycling 45 miles in the hilly terrain northwest of Philadelphia (each time under heavy rain showers), and recently running a 10K. Now, as I approach five years after my second cancer, I can honestly say that I’m the healthiest, strongest and, yes, fastest I’ve ever been and probably in better shape, at the age of 46, than many men half my age. I have LIVESTRONG to thank for inspiring me to do all that and more in the years to come.
Since that first Challenge, I’ve also learned some things about the organization’s founder, Lance Armstrong. I heard about how he had won the Tour de France seven times. I came to realize, after buying my first bike at a specialized bike shop (proud that I was supporting a local New Jersey small business), how admired he was by so many cyclists to the point of idol worship, the sort of athlete adulation I’ve always a hard time understanding. I started to hear about the accusations of doping, accusations that didn’t seem to go away. Over the years, I’d also learn a little, as much as I was not evenly remotely interested in competitive cycling, about how commonplace the use of banned substances seems to have been in that sport. Coworkers and friends, knowing of my involvement in LIVESTRONG, would gleefully bring up the accusations against Lance Armstrong. I suppose I probably disappointed them by not really taking much interest in the matter. Not knowing of any firm evidence against him and, more to the point, not really caring about his cycling career any more than I might any other athlete’s career, I’ll confess that the accusations were troubling to me and left me feeling uneasy about him as an athlete. But throughout that time, my much bigger concern was with how these accusations might affect my goal of supporting and promoting the cause, LIVESTRONG, he had set in motion so many years ago and which I and so many of my friends hold so close to our hearts.
Besides, I would also hear stories of how Lance Armstrong had stepped in to offer individuals, often people he had never met before, help and emotional support. Something that really struck me was how he and LIVESTRONG quickly offered material support to Planned Parenthood, an organization so critical in cancer screening for women, when it faced politically-motivated defunding from Susan G. Komen for the Cure last year. Ultimately, what I remembered was that he could have gone through treatment for his cancer and then never given the disease a second thought. He could have taken his millions and focused solely on himself. Instead, he offered a lot of people hope that they could survive their cancer and go on to be healthier and happier people. Above all, he started a movement and a foundation devoted to empowering people to see themselves not as victims but as survivors. He had beaten the odds against a disease that was likely to take his life, had inspired millions of people, and helped to change cancer from being a word equated with dying to one equated with resiliance.
I’ve never actually met Lance Armstrong, despite having been in the same room with him on a few occasions, always at LIVESTRONG Challenges. So I can’t say I know or even understand him as a person. I won’t pretend to understand the apparent duality of of his personality: liar and cheater on the one hand, inspiration and champion of the cancer cause on the other. However, I do know many people who do know him and who have spoken very favorably of him. I know many of them are disappointed in him today, even those who had suspected there was some truth to the allegations against him. I can only hope the broader public will not confuse Lance Armstrong’s personal matters with the very valuable work of the foundation he started and the ways he has inspired people to take up the cause of fighting cancer and surviving cancer fully.
In the final analysis, nothing can excuse Lance Armstrong’s use of performance-enhancing drugs, his lying about it, his attacks on his accusers, and the disappointment he created among the people who had believed and defended him. Perhaps we can learn something about the win-at-all-costs culture that seems so prevalent in many professional sports and how some people can be such stark embodiments of the duality of good and bad. I also hope, for his own sake, Lance Armstrong finds a way to become a more integrated and authentic individual. But I have to say I don’t much care. After all, none of this changes the fact that, by starting the LIVESTRONG Foundation and inspiring so many people like me, he fundamentally changed how we think about cancer. For those of us who don’t care about professional cycling but do care a great deal about fighting cancer, it is that legacy that will matter the most. While he goes on Oprah’s network to, at long last, begin to come clean on his personal failings, I’ll focus instead on what has always mattered much more to me: fighting cancer every way I can and, inspired by the LIVESTRONG message, surviving cancer and surviving it well.