Cancer Survivor – Part Four of Twelve: Lance Armstrong – A Cancer Survivor’s Perspective

He has won seven Tours de France, raised hundreds of millions of dollars for cancer-related charities, and stands as an inspiration to scores of people. He is accused of taking performance enhancing drugs, has enraged dozens of cycling journalists around the world, and has had many difficulties in romantic life. He’s a dad, marathoner, philanthropist, and political figure. He is the world’s pre-eminent cancer survivor. This of course is Lance Armstrong.

Cancer survivors are mixed in their evaluation of Lance Armstrong. While legions of followers of LiveStrong, his not-for-profit foundation to promote the prevention, cure and survivorship of cancer, hang on his every Tweet, others shun him in favor of a more personable maybe even humble cancer role model. Such is the duality of Lance Armstrong.

To say I love Lance Armstrong understates how strongly I feel about him and what he has done for me personally. In fact, my only child is named Lance after him. But, to understand this, you have to turn back the clock to 1996 and my fight against Hodgkin Lymphoma. In honor of LiveStrong Day, every October 2nd (his anniversary of diagnosis), here is my post about Lance Armstrong.

As mentioned in the last post, the day I found out I was finally cancer-free is July 31, 1996. Lance was diagnosed in October 1996. The term cancer survivor was not en vogue and folks like me fought the cancer battle behind closed doors. The internet did not proliferate information on treatment, symptoms, or simple best practices for people in my condition. Each cancer fight was a unique learning experience for the patient. Finding someone in prime health that had endured a cancer fight and come out healthy and strong simply did not happen. Not even word-of-mouth of my condition found anyone near my age to commiserate about the experience; moreover, I was the youngest cancer fighter in my doctor’s practice by at least three decades.

At the time, the most prolific athlete who had fought cancer and went back to his or her sport was hockey great, Mario Lemieux. Lemieux announced he had Hodgkin Lymphoma on January 12, 1993. After two months of radiation, he returned to the ice on March 2, 1993, the morning of his last radiation treatment. And, after going through basically the same regimen as him, trust me, that return is superhuman.

The media covered his return, but did not lavish their praise on him as they did Armstrong. He returned to being a great hockey player. When I received my clean bill of health, Lemieux was the reluctant face of survival but neither the voice nor the spirit.

I knew of Lance Armstrong before cancer primarily as an American cyclist who had won a Tour de France stage and who had impressed Miguel Indurain. His fight with cancer was not day-to-day news; beyond his diagnosis, I thought of Armstrong as another anonymous non-story in the abyss of cancer. In December 13, 1996, 135 days after my clean bill of health, Lance Armstrong became a cancer survivor.

The next few years for me are well chronicled in my last blog post. And Lance’s life during that same period was spent recovering from cancer treatments and training to return as an elite cyclist. This time for him is well chronicled in his autobiographies and photo memoirs, but in 1997 and 1998, Armstrong was still a footnote, until 1999.

By winning the 1999 Tour de France, Armstrong emerged as cancer’s pre-eminent survivor, in fact, around this time “cancer survivor” began to describe folks like me who fought and beat cancer. But he did more than just win a big bike race, he began to discuss his diagnosis. I watched him on TV saying the word, “cancer,” and talking about his ordeal. His approach to cycling, without European panache, but with abundant hell-bent anger and fury, showcased the rage survivors felt because of cancer.

He invented the fundraising wrist band and most importantly showed the world what cancer survivors could do. He channeled the anger and rage into bike racing and blew away the world’s best again and again.

I watched this guy channel cancer into extreme positive-energy. Like no one before him, he didn’t fight cancer, he took the fight to cancer. I not only admired his fight, I had to be like him. And, three years after surviving cancer, I took to my own bike and began cycling. I would watch my legs churning out miles thinking of Lance, knowing that if he could comeback, so could I. I rededicated my diet and lost weight. I alternated running and biking and gradually worked myself into shape.

But losing weight and getting in shape was not adequate. Cancer burned (still burns) inside me like a demon. I has left my body, but it has not left my life. And following the Armstrong Survivor blueprint, I began to reclaim my health. Cancer treatments prohibited me from walking up one flight of stairs. Following Lance’s example, I trained arduously and four years from the date of my clean bill of health, I climbed Mt. Rainier.

Lance Armstrong gave that to me. His example pulled me from the blackness and uncertainty of being a cancer survivor. He showed me that there is meaning beyond just returning to normal and that you could take cancer and redirect it in your favor. And, since 1999, I have emulated this aspect of Lance Armstrong.

Today, he is embroiled in a high-profile federal investigation over whether he took performance enhancing drugs during his career. The skeptics say he could not have beaten an elite field, most of whom were doping themselves, without some type of chemical aid. Some blind advocates think there is no way he could have taken drugs. Many media types have crucified him already. And, some of his teammates have claimed to know he had been part of a huge doping program orchestrated by the entire US Postal Service Team. Armstrong remains steadfast that his “no positive tests in or out of competition” is unequivocal evidence he is clean, while his detractors claim USPS funded elaborate funding of doping-masking systems.

The whole thing is a mess.

The bottom line to me is if he is found clean and the investigation finds nothing, let’s just collectively drop the doping allegations.

If he is determined that he doped, I would want to know, why would he risk his health to doping? After completing treatments, I couldn’t take an aspirin or a vitamin for fear of side effects. I twisted my ankle months after being clean. A couple days, after the swelling did not go down, I worried I had cancer in my ankle. Paranoid, irrational? Yes, but normal for someone coming out of treatment.

Which is why I wonder how it could be possible that someone could go from chemo to performance enhancing drugs so seamlessly. For me, I could never make that transition. Which is why I wonder how could he. And if he is found guilty, I will feel duped that he advocated for good health all the while pumping chemicals in his body. To me, you cannot be healthy and be on performance enhancing drugs. But, time will tell.

I met Lance Armstrong twice, both at bike races I Northern California. The first time, my wife staked out a spot close to the Astana tour bus. After two hours of waiting, Lance emerged. I stood in line, with a book for him to autograph, tears welling in my eyes. It was a papal visit. He signed my book, and I couldn’t even speak. My mouth was opening and closing and after about 20 seconds, I yelled, “Keep fighting!” or something, embarrassed and sad I could not tell him what he means to me. But, my wife said to our Lance, who was standing next to me, “Lance, this is big Lance, we named him after you.” Armstrong, who remained stone faced and had not said anything to anyone broke his façade and said, “Hey buddy, didn’t see you down there,” while tousling my Lance’s hair. Then, he immediately went back to game-face mode. I nearly fainted.

The next time I saw Lance, I had my Lance on my shoulders. Again, at a bike race (Nevada City), people were rushing him like a preteen at a Justin Bieber concert. I wisely didn’t follow the mob, but pushed up against a police barrier, where he was sure to walk. Good guess, he walked by and I put my hand up and touched his shoulder. Lance Armstrong stopped and looked at me and my Lance. I said, “Lance thank you. This is my son Lance, I named him after you.” Lance Armstrong looked up at Lance and me, smiled, and said, “Wow, that’s cool, guys,” and walked on.

Regardless of the outcome of his doping allegations, I will have his example and make my own health choices. I Live Strong for me and will continue to chase summits and finish lines just to say F U to cancer. Without Lance Armstrong, I do not think I would have even tried. And for that I owe him.

[images via personalrecordinpr.wordpress.com | businessweek.com]

Rick Czaplewski
One of life's greatest adventurers.

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