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Emily Cousins

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A Cancer Survivor's Reaction to Lance Armstrong's Downfall

Posted: 10/22/2012 10:36 am

I was half way through a course of chemotherapy when I learned Lance Armstrong was riding in a bike race in Manhattan. Lance had just won another Tour de France, and though I had never followed cycling before, I knew I had to see this post-cancer wonder. I was still reeling from being diagnosed with breast cancer a week before my first child was born. Each doctor's visit had brought me more bad news -- I had an aggressive tumor, I might suffer disabling side effects from chemo, I might not live to see my son enter kindergarten. I spent most of my time feeling anxious and vulnerable. But that morning, I was determined to see Lance ride. I packed up my baby and headed downtown.

The sidewalks were clogged with fans, but I inched my way toward the front row and marveled at the speed and energy pulsating through the cyclists. As I watched Lance tear through the canyons of Lower Manhattan, I wanted to pull off my hat, wave my bald head in the air, and yell, "Thank you for showing us there is life after cancer."

Now my son is 10 years old, and he cried when he learned Lance had been disgraced by his doping. My son had admired Lance so much. He had a picture of him on his wall and he wore the yellow bracelet. But when I explained Lance had taken performance enhancing drugs and lied about it, my son yelled, "That's wrong!" through wet, angry tears.

He's right, of course. Lance's alleged cheating and lying are contemptible. So are the bullying tactics he used to keep his doping quiet for so many years. Several recent accounts have revealed the limits of his character: He is selfish, calculating, ruthless, manipulative, and profoundly dishonest.

And yet I still feel grateful for Lance Armstrong. He did more than start a foundation and raise some money. He helped transform the way America views life after cancer.

Remember when cancer was a word you whispered instead of said out loud? Remember when cancer seemed like a certain death sentence? Researchers have made medical breakthroughs that help patients live longer, but Lance helped create cultural changes that allow us to do it proudly.

I recall one of the first signs of this transformation. I had already finished treatment, my hair had grown back, and I had returned to work. But cancer still haunted me. Other young mothers were planning second pregnancies, but I was still in chemo-induced menopause. Every ache and pain sent my mind racing, wondering if my cancer had metastasized. I tried to share my fears with friends, but they were perplexed by cancer's long half-life. I learned to keep my confusion quiet.

Then one night I was riding in a cab past Madison Square Garden and I saw an enormous, multistory billboard with Lance's face on it. Seeing him at the bike race the year before had been inspiring, but now he was appearing in a massive ad campaign. The image was black and white, except for a few splashes of yellow -- the vibrant, victorious gold of the Maillot Jaune. In bold letters, the ad said simply: Livestrong.

That word has since become ordinary. It is has been printed on millions of yellow bracelets, pieces of clothing, and patient packets around the globe. But that night, in the midst of my post-treatment struggle, it felt fresh and exhilarating. It was categorically different from the subdued material my cancer center handed out -- the stuff that always featured senior citizens. Here was a young guy who had kicked cancer's ass and had come roaring back. He had one ball and he still dated rock stars and models. He didn't try to put cancer behind him. He called himself a survivor and he said it with pride.

Soon after I saw the billboard, I started seeing the yellow bracelets everywhere. First I noticed them among my husband's triathlete friends and was surprised these fit guys wanted to wear something associated with cancer. Then I saw my coworkers donning them, and I realized I wasn't the outlier at the office; many colleagues had been touched by cancer. Those rubber bracelets told me I wasn't as alone as I thought.

Lance arrived on the scene at a good time. Doctors and social workers were beginning to look at life after cancer, but not that many. His foundation advocated for more research and pushed oncologists to look more closely at the long-term physical and emotional side effects of cancer. It launched clinics at premier cancer centers specifically devoted to post-treatment care, and it has shined a spotlight on cancer survivors between the ages of 18 and 39 -- what some researchers refer to as the Orphan Generation since so few studies have been done on us. And Lance himself became the public face of the emerging concept of survivorship, a concept that helped us view life after diagnosis as an unfolding process, a journey, even an art form.

None of this compensates for Lance's alleged cheating. Sports officials are right to strip away his Tour de France titles and ban him from cycling. But even as he goes down in dishonor, the changes he helped unleash will endure. Survivors will keep living strong.

 
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