For cancer survivors, the Lance Armstrong story this week wasn’t about the doping, just as the champion cyclist’s autobiography was “not about the bike.” It was about his message that cancer was not a death sentence.
That message — and the way Armstrong transformed the world’s view of life after cancer — will endure even though he has been stripped of his Tour de France titles and banned from the sport for life, they said.
“He created a movement that galvanized people,” said Virgil Simons, a formerHackensack resident who is the founder and president of The Prostate Net, an advocacy and education group for prostate cancer patients. “Survivors don’t have to hide cancer in the closet anymore.”
Armstrong delivered that message through personal example as he rode to victory seven times in the Tour de France. He helped others diagnosed with cancer navigate their treatment choices and return to active lives through the nearly $500 million his foundation raised for services and research.
And his group’s yellow wristbands, ubiquitous and instantly recognizable, inspired not only those diagnosed with cancer, but those enduring hard times of any sort to “Live Strong.”
“Whatever this is with cycling, it doesn’t in any way diminish what he’s done for cancer,” said Karen Szigety of Ridgewood on Friday afternoon. Her son Jack was diagnosed at age 10 with Hodgkin’s disease. “I’ve worn a band since Jack got sick, and I’ve never taken it off.” Now six years cancer-free, Jack started his freshman year at the University of Notre Dame this month.
Armstrong established his foundation, now known as LiveStrong, in 1997, a year after he was diagnosed at 25 with testicular cancer that had spread to his abdomen, lungs and brain. It seemed incurable, he recounted in his book, “It’s Not About the Bike.” But three years later, he won cycling’s most grueling race — and inspired cancer survivors everywhere.
That gift of hope in their darkest hours cannot be undone by the actions of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, cancer survivors said. They read his autobiography. They posted photos of him in their hospital rooms. They cheered for him as they watched each race on television.
“For him to come back and do what he did, it just gives people so much hope,” said Sam Cho, 27, who competed in this month’s Ironman U.S. Championship in New York and New Jersey — eight years after facing the same form of cancer that Armstrong had, and beating it. Interviewed before the competition, he said it was “a shame what [Armstrong] is going through with the doping scandal. But LiveStrong is so much bigger than just him.”
Other local cyclists, however, were disappointed to see the achievements of such a role model tainted. While cancer survivors focused on Armstrong’s success after cancer, other cyclists acknowledged their focus was on his reputation as an athlete.
“We would all like to believe he did it fair and square,” said Ethan Brook, president of the Bicycle Touring Club of North Jersey, which has grown from 900 members to 1,500 in the last two years. “I feel terrible,” he said, “but even at this point, there’s a lot of skepticism out there.”
“We all think we’re Lance Armstrong,” said the Cliffside Park resident, who had just returned from a long ride on Friday afternoon.
There’s always a “glimmer of hope,” said Allan Albert, who works at Westwood Cycle, owned by his family since the 1960s, that “some people [will be] honest and truthful and have the ability to be champions … without the use of any performance-enhancing products.” But after this, he said, he’ll “reevaluate the way I look at some sports or their [athletes’] accomplishments.”
“It’s sad,” said Rob Rybacki, who owns Pedal Sports in Oakland. “You’ve got to put an asterisk next to his name.”
He’d like to think Armstrong is not guilty, he said, but the potential testimony of 10 eyewitnesses who were expected to say they had seen Armstrong using banned blood transfusions, a blood booster and testosterone made him conclude Armstrong was guilty.
Yet they recognized that his accomplishments exceeded any races he won. “He basically put cycling on the map in this country,” said Rybacki.
And he motivated people to change their lifestyles, Albert said. “I had people who came in — cancer survivors as well — and they decided it was time to get healthy again,” Albert said.
Armstrong personified a cultural shift in attitudes toward cancer.
He “empowered advocates and patients to get better informed, to be able to control their lives, to reach out and create dialogue with their doctors and understand the importance of research,” said Simons.
A rainbow of wristbands followed his yellow one: purple for pancreatic cancer, teal for ovarian, red for heart disease or AIDS.
His foundation’s races — including one in Philadelphia last weekend — not only raised money for research into cancer-prevention and survivor issues, but galvanized survivors to get active. For those who found the competition daunting, the foundation also sponsored YMCA programs in 25 states, including New Jersey, to help bridge the period from cancer treatment to an active “new normal.”
In his statement abandoning the fight against the doping allegations, Armstrong said he would commit himself “to the work I began before ever winning a single Tour de France title: serving people and families affected by cancer.” The American Cancer Society, in a statement of support, said the foundation’s work was “sorely needed.”
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