In the fall of 2007, I was with my best friend on a European publicity tour of a film I had worked on. We'd been to London, Paris and Rome, enjoying ourselves to the fullest every step of the way, but I'd noticed a slight change in my friend's demeanor; he seemed to be every inch as tired as I was. And this was not like him. No, I could be the "burnt out" one, from interviews and interpreters and reporters and answering oh so similar questions repeatedly until it all strangely resembled some form of Chinese water torture, but my friend, on the other hand, was wisely using his time renting a Vespa and shooting across the cobble stone streets near Piazza De Popolo, or going to see the masterpieces that lined the hallways of the Louvre. The stuff a young and fortunate man's dreams are made of. But, dog-tired he was, and only shortly after we got back from the trip, he called me and told me why.
He was 21, and had testicular cancer. Shocked as anyone is to hear that their best friend has cancer of any kind, I was thoroughly distressed. Later the next day I confided in a man I greatly admire (who will here go unnamed), and despondent, and in a most defeated and resigned tone, told him about my friend's situation. I had almost given up hope.
"Unacceptable." He said, shaking his head. "That is unacceptable."
He went outside the restaurant, lit a cigarette, and took out his cell phone. He made the call, right then and there.
He called Lance Armstrong.
Within the hour, Lance was on the phone with my friend, giving him the lowdown on what he would be going through as far as the chemotherapy sessions and surgery would be like. He was supportive and encouraging, constantly giving my friend the attention and motivation and optimism that means so much to someone who is in a scared and vulnerable place. It was the first of several conversations they would have. After my bud got off the phone, he told me he broke down crying, because it meant so much to him. Here, one of the greatest champions to survive precisely what he was about to go through -- into that black scary chasm of the sick and unwell, the great purgatory between life and death -- the man who had triumphantly returned from that land had given him a pat on the back and a deepened will to win.
Over the next several months, my friend went from being a supremely fit physical specimen, a naturally gifted athlete in his own right, to a walking stick figure. He was wildly emaciated, all his hair fell out, and his tan brown skin turned pale and ghostly. We had long talks about life and death and our place within the universe. He kept a copy of Armstrong's book right beside his bed the whole time.
My friend had had a pain in his lower back and testicles for months before he ever went to the doctor. He just hoped, probably not unlike many young men who can't fathom their own mortality, that it was just an STD that would go away on its own. So in that incubating time the cancer spread to his lungs and other parts of his body, and was worse than it should have been due to his own pride and fear. But, Armstrong's cancer was even worse. Hell, the cancer had spread to his brain -- they cut his skull open to take some of it out, according to my friend. Lance had told him all about it. Seeing the courage that it took my friend to go through what he did, and face possible death as bravely as he did at such a young age, I'd like to go on record not as defending Lance Armstrong's admission of using banned substances, or his subsequent years of lying and denial, but to encourage people not to forget all the good for the world that Armstrong has done. My friend is one of many, many people that Armstrong has helped and been an inspirational figure for. Without Lance's guidance and support to my friend at such a crucial juncture in his diagnosis and life, I honestly don't know what would have happened to my friend; that was the kind of support Armstrong gave him. My friend went on to survive -- now, he's back to his specimen status to the chagrin of many a jealous nerd.
So, let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
I asked my friend what he thought about the whole Armstrong scandal when it was blowing up again. It's not that it didn't faze him; it's just the way in which Armstrong had helped him was something that went deeper than sports.
"That guy's Superman," he said.
There are no excuses for the level of lying and deception that Armstrong has possibly committed on the people of the world. But he still helped out my friend at a crucial point in his life, like he has for many others in their darkest places, and for that, I'm thankful.
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