On July 31, 1996, I walked out of a doctor’s office for the first time in three years free of cancer. I quietly got into my car and drove home. No party, no celebration, no fanfare, just a car ride. The term cancer survivor was not in vogue and the future of my health hinged on the results of quarterly follow up appointments. In 1996, there were no survivor resources, support groups (“Support groups? For young men with Hodgkin’s Disease? There’s just no demand for that,” informed my physician), guidebooks, races, blogs, books, pamphlets, heroes, anything. Nothing.
Flash forward to today. If someone gets cancer at any age, Lance’s Foundation, Livestrong, has resources for all types of cancer. Guidebooks help you navigate insurance discussions, speak with doctors, manage your diet, and understand many more topics. Television shows depict characters going through chemo. People actually talk about cancer and chemo and survival. This is a seismic shift in less than 20 years.
As a newly minted survivor in 1996 I reentered college, a bald anomaly among a sea of young twenty-somethings, desperate for a beacon of hope and looking for a way to fit back in with my peers. Three years later, I found it, Lance Armstrong.
In 1999, the story of Lance Armstrong, cancer survivor, Tour de France winner, cancer advocate unfolded. I watched him with such awe and hope. To me, he was not even a cyclist – he was a person who returned to his life, achieved its pinnacle and most importantly said, “Fuck you!” to cancer. He took on cancer with the same voracity as Alpe d’Huez, and he took on opponents and detractors the same way he took on his own cancer.
I didn’t just admire Lance Armstrong, I wanted to be Lance Armstrong. Not the guy winning bike races, but a cancer survivor really taking it back to cancer somehow – that’s not strong enough, I wanted to kick the shit out of cancer, I wanted to violently balance the scale and get back my athletic body that was destroyed by chemo and radiation. Like Lance, I returned the favor to cancer by climbing Mt. Rainier, swimming around Alcatraz, and running marathons. The pain and difficulty of those challenges were the only exorcism (exercism) of the residual feelings from cancer I could have. But unlike Lance, I did it naturally.
I drank his Koolaid; I believed for years he was clean; I bought jerseys; wore wristbands; participated in his challenges. I advocated for him when my friends teased me that he doped. I didn’t care.
I named my son, Lance, after Lance Armstrong and even told that to Big Lance’s face at the Nevada City Classic on Father’s Day in 2009 with my son Lance. After I stopped Big Lance and told him Little Lance on my shoulders was named Lance after Lance, Lance said to us, “That’s cool guys,” and disappeared into the crowd. I practically melted and dropped Lance after meeting Lance.
As he transcended cycling to international celebrity he never wavered in his stance, so much so, that I think he believed his own lies. Now his story is out. Ignominious reporters, former supporters and detractors alike, are unified in their alacrity and some seem to want more than just an apology. I don’t share the bitterness – the guy lived in his own prison of lies for years.
What if, for a second, Lance Armstrong has passed from cancer or couldn’t cycle after his diagnosis. What then? Would the cancer dialogue have made it to Capitol Hill? Would 28 million people fighting cancer have the resources of a Livestrong? Would grassroots charities like Imerman Angels or sweeping campaigns like Stand Up to Cancer exist? Would anyone carry that mantle? Would anyone recognize survivorship has its own set of issues that need as much attention as drug therapies? Can you really say yes to any of these without Lance?
Could I have moved on from having cancer, even years later? I simply do not know.
I still support Livestrong and its honest, energetic, and passionate CEO Doug Ulman. Over the years, I’ve met many of its staffers, some of whom are fellow cancer survivors. It’s too easy to scapegoat Livestrong in all of the controversy, but consider that when someone you know must face cancer, Livestrong provides an all encompassing amount of resources and services to help anyone. The lifestyle choices advocated by Livestrong can help anyone dealing with cancer; the organization no longer needs a figurehead. Livestrong did not cheat. Livestrong is not the bad guy. Livestrong is not Lance.
I’ll miss you, Lance. I feel like I’m walking out of that doctor’s office again, alone, without a course. I’m sorry, but I can’t think about you in the same way when I’m in mile 15 of a long run or pushing up a steep hill on my bike. I won’t be inspired by you anymore, but I know that I can push my limitations as a survivor and can still use my body fight back against cancer. We still need you, but the fight has changed; there’s many of us united in the peloton now, and we will carry on without you.