A cancer hero, fallen from grace

Two days after the news of Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace, I’m still not sure what my reaction should be. Disappointment? Disgust? Outrage?

Probably all three.

Not because he cheated his way to the top of the competitive cycling world, all the while steadfastly denying the doping allegations that dogged him – first in whispers, then in shouts – for years. Bad enough as this was, the real moral offense lies elsewhere: in leading everyone to believe in his amazing recovery from cancer, in accomplishing victories that inspired so many of his fellow survivors, when apparently all along his feats were artificially enhanced.

Were those Tour de France performances the real Lance Armstrong, the guy who battled back from testicular cancer that had spread to his abdomen, lungs, lymph nodes and brain, the guy who at one point was given only a 40 percent chance of survival? Or was his incredible comeback helped along by performance-enhancing drugs?

We’ll never know for sure. And in all honesty, I feel sort of betrayed by one of my own, because Armstrong and I belong to the same tribe: young adults who were diagnosed with cancer (in fact Armstrong’s diagnosis came a year after I completed treatment for lymphoma), beat the disease and returned to normal life.

The difference is that I didn’t cheat to do it while pretending to the rest of the world that my recovery was entirely the product of my own motivation and endurance. If anything, my life – like that of all too many other cancer survivors – has never gone back to what it used to be.

Truth be told, Armstrong has been a bit polarizing among some within the cancer community – not because of the long-standing doubts about whether he was doping but because he set the recovery bar so high.

This isn’t meant to diminish his accomplishments. Even without winning seven Tour de France races in a row, Armstrong would have been inspiring for his post-cancer career as a world-class cyclist – not to mention the founding of Livestrong, his charitable foundation that has done so much to offer help, hope and community to people with cancer.

Many survivors don’t fare as well as Armstrong, however. That cancer and the treatments for it are often accompanied by long-lasting and even permanent effects is one of the dirty little secrets of CancerWorld. It has only been within the last decade or so that the health community has begun recognizing this and trying to address it.

How people recover seems to be, at least to some extent, an individual outcome. Armstrong may have been better equipped than most, due to his training, physical and mental conditioning and perhaps even a genetic edge, as some research has suggested. Other survivors might not; does it mean they’re doing it wrong or not trying hard enough if they fall short of Armstrong’s level?

Perhaps the real issue has nothing to do with alleged doping and everything to do with the hero narrative. Armstrong gave us a shining example of overcoming adversity that turned out to be flawed. Maybe the correct response here isn’t outrage but forgiveness for placing the unreasonably high expectation on him of being everyone’s perfect cancer survivor superhero.

Why can’t the heroes be the survivors quietly showing up every day, working, going to school, raising families and being part of their community? Why can’t it be heroic enough to simply persevere through chemo brain, fatigue, nerve damage and the rest of the long-term cancer baggage?

For what it’s worth, it comes as somewhat of a relief that Lance Armstrong may be fading as the image to aspire to. Maybe now we can go back to more realistic expectations that embrace the still-rich human potential of life after cancer while remaining honest about the limitations.

5 thoughts on “A cancer hero, fallen from grace

  1. It’s interesting – when I first read the headline and the intro of this piece, my immediate thought was “well, I’ll teach my son to look to ordinary people as heroes.” And … yes – you hit on it in your second-to-last paragraph. Everyday heroism is not catchy or glamorous, but it’s what I’d rather have my child look up to, rather than hollow heroes.

    Great piece, Anne.

  2. Whether Lance was doping or not is still only circumstantial. It’s not for me to say if he did or didn’t, but how was he able to have clean blood test all those years? If in fact he was cheating, he wasn’t doing anything anyone else in cycling wasn’t doing, simply leveling the playing field. I am in no way condoning this but cycling is one of the dirtiest sports around as far as performance enhancing drugs. Did he lie? Most likely. Should he be our hero because he overcame cancer and thrived. Hero is probably too strong but we can certainly learn from him that having cancer doesn’t have to take away your dreams and aspirations. I too am a cancer survivor and I continue to participate in the running and triathlon community. One of the things I believe we can take away from this Lance discussion is that there is life after cancer for more and more people all the time. Perhaps it’s time we stop using celebrities as examples and focus on everyday, average people who do extrodinary things post cancer. There are hundreds of stories out there of people who have survived cancer and gone on to compete in (and sometimes win) significant athletic events. Watch the Ironman Triathlon World championship and see cancer survivors complete 140.6 miles of swimming, biking and running. Go to your local YMCA and you’ll find cancer survivors thriving. Is the Lance Armstrong story sad? Certainly. But don’t think the doping helped him survive the cancer. Let’s learn from this that people are fallible and perhaps we shouldn’t use sports heros (especially de-throned) ones as role models.

  3. Wonderfully, beautifully written. Thank you for sharing this. My friend and I were discussing how betrayed and angry we feel about Armstrong’s “fall from grace” after the news broke. We both held him in such high regard for, not so much his athletic ability – although, that appeared to be phenomenal – but, rather, for his strength and compassion and heart for the cause. And, to have overcome what he overcame…. Incredible. We, too, are now doubting everything.
    I thank you for moving us to consider forgiveness. I am angry. The world is angry. How could you, Lance? We all cheered as you repeatedly denied and, as far as we lay people knew, proved that the rumors were untrue. Perhaps we do need to realize that the weight of being so perfect was too much. However, with great power comes great responsibility, no?
    Thank you, also, for encouraging us to bring it back to reality – the reality of the everyday heroes, with their everyday struggles and their everyday feats, creating inspiration every day. These are the real heroes.

  4. I couldn’t agree more. My friend and I were just talking about this yesterday, with many of the same feelings. Betrayal being the biggest feeling. My husband’s uncle is just getting ready to start treatment for liver cancer, and I think you are so right, in saying that these people should be the real heroes – the ones that go about their day to day lives. Thank you for such a well-written piece!

  5. Whether Lance Armstrong cheated or not is something we will never know — as one comment said, how did he have those clean tests for so many years?

    But why does that take away from the millions and millions of dollars he raise for cancer awareness?

    You are correct, the average people are heroes — the people who go back to their everyday lives and survive. My father is one of those people. But I don’t see people lining up to give my father millions of dollars for cancer. His phone isn’t ringing to deliver speeches. As a society, we need the high profile athlete or celebrity. Good or bad, that’s who we idolize. Lance Armstrong may be a cheater on the bike — we might actually never know the truth — but the fact that he raised so much money to help people like my father lets me give him a free pass on this one.

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