In 2001, as soon as I was well enough to stay vertical for long enough to drive somewhere after chemo, the first thing I’d see in my car was Lance Armstrong’s book, “It’s Not About the Bike.” I’d already read it, devoured it actually. I was able to draw strength and determination from the strength and determination Lance used to fight back from late-stage testicular cancer. He wrote about getting chemo and riding 50 miles on his bike the same day. I downsized, getting up from watching Food Network to walk around the block 5-days after my infusion. But inspiration is inspiration, and he unknowingly helped me get well. To fully appreciate where I’m coming from in this post, you have to understand that it was Lance himself, not Livestrong, that got me through my first go-round with cancer 13 years ago.
In April of 2002, I was determined to tell him how much he helped. I pulled in every favor to get a photo and 30 seconds with him at his Lance Armstrong Foundation Ride for the Roses in Austin. I got the photo (which was unceremoniously accidentally deleted when I got back to Orlando. Not naming any culprit names….. Giti) and I got the 30 second conversation, which was a life-changer. I told him that this ride was almost a year to the day since my cancer diagnosis and a great way to mark survivorship. He said something to the effect of “It’s your 10/2. Your birthday. Congratulations.” 10/2 is October second, his diagnosis day. For a few years, Nike offered 10/2 gear in support of the LAF. (How times have changed… but I’ll get to that.)
In the last dozen years or so, I’ve thrown a dozen Wear Yellow fundraisers, raced half and full Ironman triathlons and half-marathons, even climbed Mount Kilimanjaro this year to raise money for what’s now called Livestrong. As an individual fundraiser, I have extracted about $250,000 from my family, friends, other cancer fighters, and myself. I remember when it was a Big Damn Deal when the LAF brought in its first $2 million. Since then, the foundation has raised more than a half-billion dollars. I fully supported the foundation when it changed its focus from supporting cancer research to assisting cancer patients and their families. I love that the foundation is dealing with disease and its warriors TODAY with education, navigation, fertility, and changing legislation.
I reluctantly supported the foundation’s decision to cut ties with Lance when he admitted that he’d lied about doping all those years. Like its board and staff, I could see that Lance’s association with Livestrong as he navigated his own troubled waters could bring the foundation down. I could understand his major sponsors, Trek, Nike, and Oakley, stepping away from him as an athlete, since they all promised that they weren’t abandoning his foundation or their very public showing of support for the 32-million cancer survivors around the world. And I’m sure a good number of those 32-milion bought those companies’ products because of Lance and the knowledge that their purchases were helping in the cancer fight. Well, not as many people were paying attention the next year, when those three companies quietly pulled their support from Livestrong. To me, it was kicking a dog when it’s down and hoping no one noticed. I noticed.
The most galling of these to me personally, is Trek Bicycles. Trek drafted off Lance’s success and became a behemoth with bicycle sales during those heady Tour de France victory years. I wasn’t able to find exact numbers, but the Lance Effect helped make Trek rich. Still, Trek was one of the first Lance sponsors to dump him. Their call, of course, but their corporate abandonment reeks of cowardice, disloyalty, and hypocrisy. I have been a fiercely loyal Trek customer for more than a decade. I have six (6!) Trek bikes worth upwards of $50,000. I promise you, my next bike will NOT be a Trek. After Trek pulled its support of Livestrong, I feel like it abandoned me as well.
But I digress.
In recent weeks, I’ve noticed changes in the Lance Exile Status. He has shown back up on Twitter and Facebook (with fewer trolls spewing venom at his every post. Why do people follow others on social media, only to use any post from the folowee as cause to vomit the same worn-out insults? Even when the target is just wishing a kid happy birthday?) He was at Ragbrai and Sturgis, and recently, he was talking about his very good friend, Robin Williams on CNN Tonight. He’s also shown up in “Esquire” and ESPN, sounding at peace, but ready to take up the sword in the cancer fight again.
I say, let him. Bring him back to be a part of the foundation that used to bear his name. Invite him back in any capacity at all to do what he has always done best: Give hope to people who are dealing with cancer. I understand there are still lawsuits (one major one) out there that could affect his future profoundly. I get that there are lots of haters out there just waiting to pounce on Livestrong, which they believe he invented to hide behind when people accused him of doping. I know there are lots, LOTS, of hurt feelings and bruised egos and angry longtime supporters who don’t want him back. I know there’s fear that his reassociation with Livestrong could do more damage. But I think it’s time to make a move. Thanks to tireless work and amazing transparency, CEO Doug Ulman has made sure that Livestrong is still strong through the storm. Doug made it so the foundation could withstand its founder’s leaving; I’m confident he could maneuver his coming back. After all, Livestrong was bigger than Lance for years before he left.
Lance has floated the idea of starting another similar foundation, which would be terrific for cancer patients and their families. But with limited charity dollars, why force him to reinvent the wheel, especially when the wheel is rolling like a full carbon deep-dish circle of aero goodness (see: Livestrong Cancer Institute)? To this day, even with his fall from grace as a professional athlete, he is one of the most effective cancer fighters on earth, on the world political stage and in the hospital room of a child who’s lost her hair because of chemo. He made his mea culpa on “Oprah” (although I think he did it badly), and it’s time to talk about forgiveness and moving forward.
13 years ago, it was Lance Armstrong, the cancer survivor, who pushed me to get well and get better than I was. Does that make sense? I watched what he did with his athletic career and his foundation and knew that he was The Role Model Cancer Survivor. He showed me that there are no limits to what a cancer survivor can achieve. And I have tried to prove that repeatedly. I understand why he doped. I don’t like that he lied about it. I really don’t like how he attacked his accusers. But he gave cancer the finger and won 7 Tour de France races. More importantly, he used his success and founded a grassroots cancer foundation that has helped millions of people around the world. The debt of the cured, he calls it; paying it forward. That’s become my life promise as well. Better than I was.
So as a longtime Livestrong/LAF supporter, I’m pushing the conversation: He may be finished as a professional athlete, but he has much power and charisma and bull-headedness that the cancer community could use. And he has the desire and the passion for the fight. As the “Esquire” article said, “… trail him for a few days and watch how giddy and hopeful the sick and the dying become in his presence, forgetting for a moment their nausea and pain and mortal fears. Amid all the controversy and disgrace, you admit, you forgot just how important Lance Armstrong was and still is to cancer patients everywhere.” It’s time to give Lance a platform from which to continue to pay it forward. It’s time to bring him home.