Health care

Livestrong’s about cancer, not about Lance

January 26, 2013 

I’m still wearing my Livestrong bracelet.

And I wonder whether I should be embarrassed.

I took up wearing the yellow silicone band not long after they first appeared in 2004 for $1 at sporting goods checkout counters. But it wasn’t because they were a way to celebrate cyclist Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France tour de force: winning sport’s most grueling challenge after almost dying from cancer. And I don’t keep it on my left wrist now to support him in his self-inflicted disgrace: coming clean about performance-enhancing drugs after years of vehement denial.

No, I’ve worn it these many years because two of the finest women I’ve ever known had cancer. They only took powerful drugs to try to cheat that despicable disease, not for personal glory and riches.

This symbol so significant to me is intertwined with Armstrong, and I wish it weren’t. But I wonder if that’s part of the Lance mythology: Now that he who was hoisted upon the pedestal has fallen off, everything associated with him must be damned so the rest of us feel less guilty about having been willingly duped.

When my dear friend Karen Potter was diagnosed with bone cancer in 2000, I read Armstrong’s new book, “It’s Not About the Bike,” and sent her a copy — along with a yellow jersey signed by many of her Fort Worth Star-Telegram friends and former co-workers — for inspiration.

He (or co-author Sally Jenkins) wrote about cancer being like getting run off the road by a truck: “A blast of hot air hits you, you taste the acrid, oily exhaust in the roof of your mouth, and all you can do is wave a fist at the disappearing taillights.”

He wrote about learning he had testicular cancer in 1996 at age 25 and believing it would derail his career, detour his Porsche-driving lifestyle and deprive him of his identity. But he also wrote about the long, painful struggle through brain surgery and treatment and recovery.

Three years after the worst day of his life, he won cycling’s best-known race. Now, it appears, he used more than cancer drugs to help his performance. But back then, his story was one of hope and perseverance.

Then my sister Susan was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2008, so I wore my yellow band for her, as though I could somehow will her to stay with us. I couldn’t, of course.

Now that Armstrong has confessed to Oprah, and the image of the Livestrong Foundation is part of the fallout, some people would chuck the Livestrong wristbands along with the man himself. But I’m not convinced.

I can grasp how it might take a relentlessly controlling personality with incredible force of will not only to focus his way through cancer but also to put in the mind-numbing, muscle-exhausting training for a world-class sporting event. Don’t we adulate athletes whose single-mindedness seems superhuman?

I can even understand how a win-at-all-costs mentality could perpetuate a meticulously orchestrated doping operation.

But I don’t feel personally cheated. Lance Armstrong might be a fraudulent Tour de France winner, and he owes plenty of people money and, more important, true contrition for damaging their lives.

But he did beat cancer. I still believe that part.

And I still detest cancer.

So I’ll keep wearing my yellow bracelet, until science gives me a reason to not have to any more.

Contact Campbell, a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, at lcampbell@star-telegram.com.

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