Friday, August 6, 2010
So, lately everyone from friends and family to strangers who see me decked out in my Livestrong gear have asked me about my opinion on Lance Armstrong and the doping allegations. The honest answer is that I really don’t care. Let me explain.
Sixteen years ago I had just finished treatment and was living at home with my parents. I was bald, skinny, and had a catheter in my chest . In short, I was different. I was in a very odd place in my life. I didn’t/couldn’t fit in. On one hand, I wanted to assimilate, get back to normal and be treated like I was before cancer, but it just wasn’t a realistic expectation. I was the kid who had cancer. Cancer was such a bad word in 1994, you just didn’t talk about it. I was in a very dark place too; the National Institutes of Health asked me to talk to the kids about my experience with cancer to give them hope and inspire them. I tried, but I failed. I couldn’t do it, I felt guilty that I was alive and others were not. I could not honestly look at them and say anything to change their outlook. I didn’t really have anyone to look up to when I was going through treatment. The “support” groups at the time consisted of the pediatric patients getting together and talking about our feelings. Sounds good right? Not at all, every other week someone was missing from our group as they lost their battle. I went twice and never went back.
I watched an 18 year old boy with my same diagnosis lose his battle with cancer. Why did he die, but I did not? I don’t have an answer. Was it some higher power? Luck? I haven’t the slightest idea. I was lucky I didn’t get the infection that he did. Look, I’m not complaining, but nothing made sense to me at the time and how could it? I didn’t have anyone to talk to, there was nobody out there that truly understood what I had just gone through. The internet, well, we didn’t have the resources that we have today.
After treatment, I went home and went about my life as if cancer never existed. I never talked about it for fear of people thinking I was different. The stigma was still there. Cancer was a dirty word. They didn’t even call it by name, instead referring to it as the Big C! A couple things happened in my life to completely change my perspective. I remember hearing about this guy who beat cancer and won some bike race in France. At the time, I was an avid mountain biker, hated road bikes, etc. seemed like too much work and not enough fun for me. A couple of years later, I picked up his book. From the first page, I couldn’t put the book down. I felt like he got it. He knew everything that I went through. Did he write this book for me? Of course not…but maybe he did. He wrote it for people like me who struggle with life during and after cancer. There is no guidebook for a cancer diagnosis, you don’t know what to do, how to act, what to say. Everyone feels sorry for you and they don’t know what to say either. Do they ask if you are cured? Will it come back? How was treatment? You feel completely isolated, because again, people just don’t get it. This book was my bible. I read it 4 or 5 times.
Cancer not only physically destroys your body, but it really screws you up mentally as well. I thought some of the similarities in Lance’s book and my experience were eerie and uncanny. The tests, the MRIs, apprehension, CT scans, X-rays, right down to the nurse playing a prominent role. My primary nurse was a God-send, I confided in her, she knew everything I was feeling. To this day, our family still keeps in touch with her. We send Christmas cards and she’s seen our family grow as well as we’ve seen hers. The book showed me that it was ok to have cancer and gave me the courage to talk about my experience. It kind of said, let’s talk about it, stop avoiding it, get off your ass and make a difference. I think Lance called it the obligation of the cured.
Fast forward and my good friend Ryan Gascoyne lost his battle with cancer. I clearly remember the sermon at the funeral. The priest talked about how precious life was and how important it is to make your mark in life because life was so short. I took that to heart and told a few friends at the Irish wake (aka celebration of life involving massive amounts of alcohol) that I was going to do something to honor Ryan. I am pissed that it took his passing to get me off my butt, but it did and I will forever ride for Ryan. I got involved by fundraising for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society by doing a century bike ride around Lake Tahoe. Got my first road bike……not so boring after all. That ride changed my life forever. I rode in honor of my aunt Joan who was fighting cancer and in memory of Ryan. It was the most amazing experience of my life. It was extremely difficult climbing the mountains of Lake Tahoe, but I was possessed. Ryan and Joan gave me the strength to finish that ride. I will never forget coming down that last hill into town. I was crying uncontrollably. They were tears of joy, but also pain and sadness. I was happy that I had finished the ride for Ryan and Joan, but I was upset that Ryan wasn’t around. That was my introduction to giving back and making a difference.
In 2004, this little yellow band popped up. I immediately got one. Livestrong. It was but one word, yet to me it was so much more than that. It became a way of life. The beauty of Livestrong is that the word is universal; it has its own meaning for each and every individual. For me, it was a constant reminder to make the most of our time on earth. Life is short and precious and we need to embrace it. The band is a constant reminder to stay on course. Times get tough, I get stressed just like everyone else, but then I glance down at the band and I remember. I remember the boy in the hospital bed next to me who lost his battle with cancer, I remember Ryan Gascoyne and Aunt Joan who both lost their lives to this horrible disease. Then…a remarkable thing happens, it’s called perspective. It brings me back to reality. I have my health, my wife, and a beautiful little girl. A bad day, didn’t get that sale I wanted, too many bills, baby crying, can’t sleep, etc. It doesn’t matter, I don’t sweat the small stuff as they say. Too many times we fail to look at the big picture, and that is what Livestrong does for me, it helps me focus on the things that are truly important to me.
The reason that I don’t care about the allegations against Lance is that at this point, Livestrong is so much bigger than him. Livestrong is a movement, not a person. We are a grassroots, unified group of people working together for a greater cause. Close to 600,000 Americans die every year from cancer and 1,500 Americans die every single day. That is a 9/11 every two days. Think about that. Globally 28 million people are living with cancer. 28 million! 22,000 people die every day from cancer, that’s more than AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria combined. There is so much work to be done and the foundation is just that, a foundation, it is THE foundation of the global fight against cancer. To borrow from my friend Jamie Lindsay, "if Lance Armstrong the athlete made mistakes, so be it. The man, the cancer survivor, and the foundation however, continue to inspire and teach."
My outlook on life has completely changed and cancer is the reason I live such a rich, fulfilling life. I have so much to live for, so many things left undone, so many goals and dreams that I will fight it until there is no more fight left in my body. Plus, I love how life is full of surprises, good and bad, because that is what makes life so worth living. The unknown. I don't want to be "stuck" in life, I want surprises! Life is a precious thing.... Be well, and Livestrong!