Lance Armstrong Shares His Struggle To Survive Cancer... and Thrive!
The world knows and celebrates Lance Armstrong for his remarkable defeat of life-threatening cancer and for his unparalleled seven consecutive victories in the Tour de France bicycle race. But, as Armstrong reveals in this exclusive interview, he is prouder of his cancer victory than all of his racing wins.
Armstrong, whose non-profit Lance Armstrong Foundation (LAF) is now a leader in the fight against cancer, knows all too well the impact that cancer of any kind can have on an individual. In 1996, his own aggressive form of testicular cancer metastasized into his lymph nodes, lungs and brain. Armstrong underwent two surgeries, one to remove his cancerous testicle and another to remove two cancerous lesions on his brain. Over a three-month period, he received four rounds of chemotherapy. For these reasons, he understands that defeating cancer cannot be done alone.
As he told doctors, researchers and clinical trial participants on one of his visits to the NIH's National Cancer Institute (NCI), without their cancer research and that of others, "...quite frankly, I wouldn't be here today. And I certainly wouldn't have clipped into a pedal and started a bike race ever again."
Success stories such as Armstrong's are part of an evolving strategy in the fight against cancer, notes Andrew von Eschenbach, M.D., NCI director and acting commissioner, U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
"Over the course of the 20th century, the primary strategy for treating cancer was 'seek and destroy'," he says. "Now, in an effort to preserve healthy cells and improve outcomes, we are increasing efforts to 'target and control' cancer by modulating and altering the behavior of the disease. Someday we will eliminate cancer, but for today, our immediate goal is to eliminate the suffering and death due to cancer." (Read more comments from Dr. von Eschenbach on page 8.)
That is one of the many reasons that Dr. von Eschenbach finds Lance Armstrong's story so compelling: "Lance is a cancer survivor who represents so many, many others across this country and the world who have faced the challenge of cancer," he says. "He is an example to us of what is possible, what is within our grasp—a world in which no one suffers and no one dies as a result of cancer."
How did you learn of your cancer, and how did you feel about it?
I was diagnosed with Advanced testicular cancer on October 2, 1996. I had ignored the symptoms for months; pain comes with professional cycling, so it was easy to dismiss the soreness in my groin, headaches and difficulty breathing. I reluctantly went to the doctor after my testicle had swollen to three times its normal size. I owe a lot to my neighbor—a friend and doctor who insisted I get it checked out. By the time I was diagnosed, the cancer had already spread to my lungs and brain, so it is fair to say I was in bad shape.
How did I feel about it? Probably the same as anyone who has ever been diagnosed feels about cancer—I was in complete shock. Here I was, young and healthy and riding better than ever and, suddenly, I have cancer. I was worried about losing my career and, frankly, my life. I didn't know how to tell my mom, and I was scared and angry.
I can now say that my life is better because of my cancer experience. Though I wouldn't wish it for anyone, I believe I appreciate my life in a completely new and better way because I faced cancer and was lucky enough to survive. Having said that, I also believe that cancer still affects far too many people, and we must continue to work to change that fact.
You say that "knowledge is power" in fighting cancer. From your experience, what are the two or three most important things you believe cancer patients should keep in mind?
My mom and a core group of friends helped me spend countless hours reading information and asking questions. It's really important, and I can't stress that enough. You must be your own best advocate to be sure the treatment you are getting is best for you.
I got a second opinion, which can be tough to do. We are inclined to trust our doctors implicitly and not question them, but the second opinion I got was the right one for me. So, I would encourage people to seek more opinions and to not be afraid to question their doctors.
I also think that a person with cancer needs to seek out support from friends and family. I had a group of people there for me—to listen to me, cheer me on or remind me that I wasn't really alone. I was lucky to know that other people were invested in my survival; you can never overestimate the benefit of that kind of support and friendship.
In addition to talking with your doctors, did you seek information from the National Cancer Institute, and how important was it to you?
At the time, I didn't know anything about the NCI and all the resources available to people with cancer. I discovered the NCI while researching information about my diagnosis, and I believe it is a very important resource.
I would encourage anyone facing cancer to seek more questions and not be afraid. Especially now, with the increased use of the Web, it is amazing how much information is available to a new patient.
Beyond supplying information, the work of the NCI represents our government's commitment to cancer. That is why the current $40 million in budget cuts proposed for the NCI are wrong. There is a long budget battle ahead, and I know the Senate has proposed an amendment to restore funding. We cannot back away from our commitment to beating cancer, and the NCI is critical in that fight.
What is the message you would most like to send to people recently diagnosed with cancer?
Hope. There can and should be life after cancer for more people, and I want people to know that.
At a Lance Armstrong Foundation (LAF) event in Austin last fall, a lung cancer survivor told the audience that she changed doctors because the first one seemed to write her off.
She said she fired the doctor because, as she put it, "I can't have more hope than you do. I need someone to believe in me." Maybe that's why she is still here and was able to come to Austin to share her story.
Cancer is tough, and it still claims too many lives, but I think that hope is the greatest weapon a person has. Ask the tough questions, get a second opinion, take care of yourself, surround yourself with family and friends, and do whatever you have to do to keep hope alive.
The goal of this new magazine, NIH MedlinePlus, is to give people access to trusted, easily understood information about dealing with disease and staying healthy. Do you often hear from people seeking such reliable information?
Constantly. A cancer diagnosis changes a person forever. It is an overwhelming and confusing thing, particularly since there are so many types of cancer and so many outcomes. More than anything else, people just want information. They want to know about treatment, treatment centers, side effects, fertility and depression and, of course, how they are going to pay for their care. One of the goals of the LAF is to provide information to people about the physical, practical and emotional consequences of cancer. It's a big job, and this information is in demand, so we welcome more resources for people with cancer.
NCI Cancer Resources
Main MedlinePlus Web page: www.medlineplus.gov
MedlinePlus cancer types:
Patient education tutorials:
Drugs, supplements and herbal
Updated information about federally and privately supported clinical research in human volunteers:
Directories of health-care professionals,
services and facilities:
National Cancer Institute (NCI):
Links to all types of cancer:
Could you share a brief anecdote or moment that occurred during your treatment that speaks to you about how the courageous struggle by cancer patients can be a meaningful boost to other cancer patients?
While I was being treated, my nurse, Latrice Haney, started introducing me to other patients. It was good for me. That was when I truly began to grasp the magnitude of cancer—more than 8 million people living with it at the time. I got really angry and became interested in fighting cancer, not just my own, but cancer in general. I knew that I needed to use this experience to help others, which was how the idea for the Foundation began.
I'm lucky to meet so many people through the LAF that remind me how courageous the average cancer patient is. And it's a reminder that cancer doesn't discriminate. I have met people from all over the world with all types of cancer and more brave kids than I can count. A person could get discouraged by that, but we use it to inspire us to work harder.
What is your goal for the Lance Armstrong Foundation?
We want to inspire and empower people with cancer. We want to provide people with the practical tools and information they need to live strong.
We are doing that through research, advocacy and public health programs. It's a big job; we are fully dedicated to it.
What does the future hold for Lance Armstrong?
I hope to live up to the words of one of my doctors—Dr. Craig Nichols—and continue to fulfill the obligation of the cured by leading a grassroots movement to reduce incidence, increase survival and offer each person with cancer the opportunity to live their life on their own terms.
I am grateful for the tremendous and unforgettable experiences my cycling career has brought me, but I am most proud to be a cancer survivor and a parent. It is these two roles that will guide my future.