Lance Armstong had became a top swimmer and a triathlete during his teen age years. The U. S. Cycling Federation took notice and got him training with the Junior national Cycling Team before he even graduated from high school. Within a year or so he'd competed in the Junior world Championships in Moscow and was signed to the professional/amateur racing team sponsored by Subaru-Montgomery. He repaid their confidence by winning the U. S. Amateur Championships.
Lance Armstrong appeared to be at the threshold of a charmed life. Young, strong and talented, his career started taking on the appearance of super-stardom. The Motorola team soon recruited him to join their top-rated U.S. cycling team and looked for great things as Lance entered the arena of international cycling. His aggressive style and winning spirit helped his team reach number five in the world by 1993. Just three years later, in 1996, Lance was expected to win the Tour de France itself. That year he'd already won the Tour DuPont and Fleche Wallone races. The stars and planets were lining up his way. He was the number one ranked cyclist in the world.
It was possible, just possible, that Lance Armstrong would become the next Greg LeMond, three time champion of the Tour de France and the only American to win it. Greg's last victory had been in 1990. Now, in 1996, a new American champion cyclist would arise to become known the world over. He was physically invincible. Oh, sure, he was "sore in the saddle," but he brushed that off to the grueling regimen of cycle training.
Then there were symptoms he couldn't ignore anymore. The headaches, blurry vision, soreness in the groin area, overall ill feeling and even coughing up blood were enough to get him into the doctor's office. Suddenly, out of apparently nowhere, his entire life, his future, his well being all came crashing down at once. The diagnosis had come back as cancer, massive cancer.
What Lance didn't know was spreading like wildfire throughout his body was choriocarcinoma, an especially aggressive form of testicular cancer. This was no microscopic tumor caught in the early stages. His cancer had established itself in his abdomen, his lungs and even his brain. There were eleven masses in his lungs alone, some the size of golf balls. His brain was invaded by two malignancies. Best estimate of survival? Only 50/50.
On October 2, 1996, Lance was dealt a crushing blow when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. The cancer had also spread to his lungs and his brain. I was living in Lance's home town of Austin, Texas at the time when Lance made the following statement on October 8th:
"I would like to thank everyone for coming and for calling in to hear what I have to say today. I have some news regarding my health to share with you."
"On Wednesday, October 2nd, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Prior to seeing my doctor last week, I had been experiencing swelling and pain in one of my testicles and had coughed up some blood. On Thursday, October 3rd, I underwent surgery at St. David's Hospital here in Austin to have the malignant testicle removed and the surgery was successful. A CT-Scan was also performed the same day. The CT-Scan revealed that my condition has spread into my lungs and abdomen. In terms of degrees of the disease, my condition is considered to be advanced and, thus, yesterday I began my first day of chemotherapy treatment."
"I will undergo chemotherapy for at least nine weeks and then, depending on how I respond to the treatment, may have to undergo more chemotherapy or other procedures to fight this disease. I have the utmost faith in all the doctors with whom I am working and I am determined to fight this disease and to prevail. I would like to say a special thank you to the staff at St. David's hospital for making my stay there as comfortable as possible and for protecting my privacy until I was prepared to share this news with the press."
"Due to this consideration, I have been able to speak with all of my sponsors, with Team Motorola, and with my new team, Team Cofidis, prior to this press conference."
"My oncologist, Dr. Dudley J. Youman, was unable to be here today. However, he has told me that the cure rate for testicular cancer in the advanced stage is between 60% and 85%. Further, if I do beat this disease I have been assured that there is no reason that I cannot make a full and complete recovery."
"For now, I must focus on my treatment. However, I want you all to know that I intend to beat this disease, and further, I intend to ride again as a professional cyclist. I am unable to say today when I will be back in the peloton but hold out hope that I might still participate in the 1997 season."
"I want to finish by saying that I intend to be an avid spokesperson for testicular cancer once I have beaten the disease. Had I been more aware of the symptoms, I believe I would have seen a doctor before my condition had advanced to this stage. I want this to be a positive experience and I want to take this opportunity to help others who might someday suffer from the same circumstance I face today."
Frightened, but determined, Lance began the most aggressive form of chemotherapy available. It weakened him and he lost more than 20 pounds, but he had a deep well of reserves and the unconditional support of family and close friends. Team Cofides, one of Lance's sponsers at the time, following the news of his illness, terminated his contract with them.
When tests showed that the chemotherapy was working, Lance allowed his thoughts to return to racing. Lance affiliated with the United States Postal Service Pro Cycling team and began training only five months after his diagnosis. Lance was declared cancer-free in 1997.
In 1998, Lance officially returned to professional cycling, wearing a United States Postal Service jersey. After an uncertain early season, he proved he was back in form towards the end of the year, winning a stage race and placing fourth in the World Championships.
In 1999, the world witnessed the greatest comeback in sports history as Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France, the most grueling sporting event in the world, a three week bicycle race of more than 2,200 miles through the most rugged mountains in France, Italy and Spain.
Lance Armstrong, cancer survivor and world's greatest cyclist, would be the first to say he is no saint. But for tens of thousands of cancer patients, survivors, their families and friends, he is a global source of inspiration and courage that borders on beatification.
At every city and village in the three-week Tour de France the past four years, desperate families have shown up at Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team hotels seeking an audience with their hero.
They bring their sick children or parents, sometimes wrapped in blankets in a waiting car. They pass notes to team staff members, begging them to deliver their pleas, hoping for a touch or a word that will change cancer's cruel course.
He considers his daily encounters with cancer patients, which occur wherever he travels, a serious responsibility. And he has accepted what he calls "the obligation of the cured."
"When I'm at the Tour or other races," he says, "I have to stay focused on what I'm doing. But at other times, it's not hard to deal with. It's not a burden, and I'll do it until they ask me not to. Someday there might be a 15-year-old girl who won't know or care who Lance Armstrong is, and someone else can step in and be her inspiration. Until then, I'll try to meet every request, every person who can use some help."
But he strongly resists the notion that he possesses healing powers or has a special relationship with God because of his experiences.
"I would never try to put myself in the position of being someone else's miracle. I can't be the rabbit's foot for people," he says. "I hope that it is enough to be always willing and able to meet and talk with people, but there's no promises and no guarantees."
That Armstrong survived his battle with testicular cancer in 1996 is miracle enough for one lifetime, but his return to professional cycling and four consecutive wins of the tortuous 2,000-mile Tour de France made him a sports legend.
However, his powerful devotion to his foundation's stated mission of "enhancing the quality of life for those living with, through and beyond cancer" has elevated him beyond sport and into a loftier realm.
"I didn't set out to be Mother Teresa or the ultimate cancer survivor," Armstrong said in a recent phone interview from his home in Spain, where he was preparing for the July 6 start of the 2002 Tour de France.
"I just understand what they're going through. They want to do what I wanted to do. I wanted to hear about success stories, to meet people who had survived testicular cancer. If I can do that for someone, that's wonderful."
In his book, Armstrong says, "If there is a purpose to the suffering that is cancer, I think it must be this: It's meant to improve us."
Lance says the cancer left him scarred physically and emotionally, but says it was an unexpected gift. Throughout his life-threatening ordeal, Lance knew his priorities were changing. His physical well being, something that had never been challenged, was suddenly fragile. His ordeal made him fully appreciate the blessings of good health, a loving family and close friends. Lance described his bout with cancer as "a special wake-up call."
As the world watched him courageously ride to victory in the 1999, 2000 ,2002 and 2002 Tour de France cycling races, Lance became a hero. Every day he gave hope and inspiration to millions of people facing their own adversity. Many people say, "If Armstrong could come back from this, maybe I can too."
Lance says his illness may have been the best thing that could have happened. He gained a perspective earned only after enduring an experience like his. He is now motivated not only to win bike races, but to compete every day for the gift of life; his own life as well as the lives of others.
Long time coach and confidante Chris Carmichael says this about Lance:
"People need something to grasp onto when they are helpless," he says. "Lance has been there and was able to pass through it. And who knows why? He had no hope, and he made it and achieved greatness. Look around and you'll see how little hope there is. And that's why people think, 'If it can happen to him, it can happen to me.' Lance gives us all evidence that hope is alive and miracles do happen."
Lance has established The Lance Armstrong Foundation, an organization devoted to cancer research and helping people survive cancer.
More information about Lance Armstrong and his foundation can be found at http://www.lancearmstrong.com/
Sources for the story: USA Today, ICAN News Services, The Austin American Stateman, Cycling News and John Shepler.
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