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Tour De Amerique Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong used a triumphant whirlwind return to the U.S. to peddle a message of hope

Aug. 09, 1999
Aug. 09, 1999

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Aug. 9, 1999

Tour De Amerique Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong used a triumphant whirlwind return to the U.S. to peddle a message of hope

The television interviewers were stacked up on the satellite
feed like so many planes above La Guardia on a stormy day. The
producer from NY1 in New York was still signing off as the
reporter from KTBC in Austin started asking Lance Armstrong
questions, as the producer from KCBS Sports Central in Los
Angeles was making sure he would have Armstrong on in eight
minutes, as Diana Nyad of Fox Sports News waited, followed by
Jim Rome of The Last Word, followed by.... "I feel almost guilty
doing this to him," said Mike Leventhal, a producer for Bader TV
News, where Armstrong sat for the interviews. "I usually space
things out, give somebody a rest between interviews--just 30
seconds to have a drink of water or something--but there just
isn't time."

This is an article from the Aug. 9, 1999 issue

No matter. This was what Armstrong wanted to do during his
21-hour visit to the U.S. last Thursday. He sat in front of TV
cameras most of the day and told his story again and again. He
had begun his rounds on CBS This Morning at 5:45 a.m., having
arrived in the wee hours from Holland aboard an executive jet
chartered by Nike. He would end the interviews at nine in the
evening on David Letterman's couch, as a limo waited outside the
studio to take him back to the jet, which would take him back to
Holland.

This was Armstrong's opportunity for public conversation. He
would make people laugh. He would make more people cry. He would
blanket the country as best he could, talk to
everyone--anyone--taking advantage of the moment before the
expiration date arrived, before the easily distracted public eye
moved to some other grand feat or terrible disaster, some other
curiosity.

He was the man who had won the Tour de France. He was the man
who had kicked cancer's ass, choosing riskier, more agonizing
therapies so he could protect his future as a cyclist even while
his life hung in the balance. And he had a message to deliver.
This was his moment to speak, and he would not let it go. "If I
can save five lives by going on some show, it's worth it," he
said. "If I can save one life by going on all the shows, it's
worth it. I'm prouder of being a cancer survivor than I am of
winning the Tour de France. Believe me."

His story is a modern parable of hope. How many people have
heard the word cancer in a doctor's office and felt a chill? How
many people are going through chemotherapy or radiation, sitting
at home, wondering what will happen tomorrow and the tomorrow
after that? Armstrong is one of them, part of this multitude of
the damned. He always will be. "I'm aware of the cancer
community wherever I go," he says. "I could feel it at the Tour.
People would come up to me before races or after races. I could
feel it during the races. It's a community of shared experience.
If you've ever belonged, you never leave."

On Oct. 2, 1996, Armstrong's doctor told him he had testicular
cancer. Armstrong was 25 years old, the best bicycle rider in
the U.S., a former world champion--confident, abrasive. He'd
never thought about cancer. Not once. The uncomfortable bump on
one testicle certainly was somehow the result of cycling, he
told himself. The blood that he spit up, well, that only
happened once. The diagnosis was a shock. "I thought the same
thing everybody thinks when he hears the word cancer," Armstrong
says. "I thought, Oh my god, I am going to die."

He not only had cancer; he had an advanced case. The removal of
a testicle on Oct. 3 was only the start. A few days later he was
told that the cancer had spread to his lungs, which were rife
with tumors. A short time after that he was told that the cancer
had spread to his brain.

After the surgery in Austin, he went on the Internet, punched in
the words testicular cancer and was surprised at how much
information the search engine brought home. He consulted with
other doctors. He eventually landed in Indianapolis, at the
Indiana University Medical Center, being treated by medical
oncologists Lawrence Einhorn and Craig Nichols, the U.S.'s top
testicular cancer specialists.

If Armstrong had arrived at a doctor's office in this condition
25 years ago, he almost certainly would have died. Brian
Piccolo, the Chicago Bears running back whose story was
chronicled in the movie Brian's Song, died of testicular cancer
in 1970. Armstrong's chances were much better now due mainly to
the work of Einhorn, who had perfected a chemo treatment that
had greatly reduced deaths, but he was still in trouble. "The
chemo works or it doesn't work," Einhorn says. "If it works, the
patient will live a normal, cancer-free life. If it doesn't and
the cancer comes back, he usually will be dead three to four
months later.

"I didn't know who Lance Armstrong was. It's funny, too, because
I really follow sports. Football, baseball, basketball. I just
didn't know anything about cycling. I thought, O.K., a cyclist.
I've had athletes before--testicular cancer is a disease that
strikes young men. Then I started receiving these calls and
E-mails from oncologists around the country, around the world. I
realized this was someone special."

There are choices with all treatments. After examining
Armstrong, the doctors devised a course of treatment for him.
The primary goal was survival. The secondary goal was to allow
Armstrong to resume cycling. Einhorn and Nichols laid out
choices that would make the resumption of an athletic career
possible.

"There were two major decisions," Einhorn says. "The first
involved the brain tumors. Chemotherapy doesn't work as well on
brain tumors for some reason. We don't know why. The standard
treatment is radiation, but one of the effects of long-term
radiation is a slight loss of balance. Not enough to affect the
average person, but certainly enough to keep someone from riding
a bicycle down the Alps. We chose surgery instead of radiation
for Lance. It's slightly riskier, but he had only two tumors and
they were in a position where a surgeon could get to them.

"The second decision was on the chemotherapy itself. The drug we
usually use is bleomycin, which produces less nausea, vomiting
and other side effects than ifosfamide, another possibility. One
downside of bleomycin is that it slightly diminishes the
patient's lung capacity. Again, for the average person, this
would not be a problem. But for a cyclist? Lance chose the
ifosfamide, taking the short-term discomfort for the long-term
gain."

The brain surgery was performed on Oct. 24. The chemotherapy was
administered in three separate five-day stretches. Armstrong
would come to Indianapolis for a treatment, return home for 2
1/2 weeks, then return for another treatment. His hair fell out.
He lost between 10 and 15 pounds of muscle--he had nothing else
to lose, since he had begun the treatments with less than 2%
body fat.

Armstrong's hope had been that his athlete's physical
conditioning, even his focused, positive athlete's mind, would
be his greatest ally. Cancer doesn't work that way. The weak
survive as often as the strong. The strong succumb as often as
the weak. The athlete's body and mind were not factors. "I've
had wonderful, positive people, people who ate all the right
things, did all the right things, not make it in the end,"
Einhorn says. "It just a shame. There's no correlation. I've had
some of the most miserable, ornery people, complaining all the
time, survive to resume their miserable, ornery lives."

Einhorn's first indication of success was a clean chest X-ray. A
dead tumor in a lung can remain in the picture for a year,
indistinguishable from a cancerous tumor. The tumors have to
disappear from the X-ray before the doctor knows they're dead.
This happened for Armstrong in April 1997.

The second benchmark was a blood test, tracking a factor called
the HCG count. A normal HCG count is 1.5 or less. Armstrong's
was over 100,000 in the beginning. It had to return to 1.5 and
stay there. The count dropped to normal in February 1997 and
stayed there. When it was still normal in October 1997--one year
after Armstrong's first chemo treatment--he was pronounced
cured. He had beaten cancer. "He's no more susceptible now to
other cancers than anyone else," Einhorn says. "The testicular
cancer will not return. He's clean. In a world filled with sad
stories, Lance's is a wonderful story."

The second half of his story is almost as startling as the
first. Armstrong never really left cycling--he took 30-mile
rides in Austin during the recovery time between chemo
sessions--but as he returned to full-time riding, he gradually
found that he was even better than he had been before he became
sick. The weight loss from the chemo had left him with a lighter
and even leaner body. The experience had left him with a
different mind. He was more mature, more serious, more directed.

He got married. His wife, Kristin, became pregnant in vitro with
sperm he had frozen before he started the chemo. He looked at
all the possibilities. He looked at the Tour de France.

"The doubt about him had always been the climbs in the
mountains," says Armstrong's friend Jim Ochowicz. "He always
could sprint well, and he always was capable of winning a stage
in the Tour. The mountains were his downfall. But with the
weight loss--if you lose five pounds, that's a large weight loss
for the mountains. It was all he needed. He became very good in
the mountains."

After Armstrong finished fourth in the Tour of Spain last
September and then fourth two weeks later in the one-day world
championships, he decided he had the necessary stamina for
France in July. For the first time in his career, he spent the
spring in Europe, training for the race. For the first time,
with his U.S. Postal Service teammates, he practiced on the same
steep roads through the Alps and Pyrenees that he would have to
ride during the race. For the first time, the Tour really meant
something.

On July 3 he won the prologue, the opening stage, and donned the
yellow jersey as the leader of the race. On July 11, after
losing the jersey, he regained it by winning a time trial in
Metz. The next day he took control of the race by decisively
winning the first of the Tour's grueling stages in the Alps. For
the ensuing two weeks, surrounded by American teammates, riding
an American bike, the 27-year-old American kept the jersey. He
rode through scurrilous drug allegations (box, page 71) and
sunshine, through mountains and rain. He rode all the way to
Paris. All the way to the victory stand on the Champs-Elysees.

And all the way into homes across America. "If I never had
cancer, I never would have won the Tour de France," Armstrong
said into the camera last Thursday, four days after his win.
"I'm convinced of that. I wouldn't want to do it all over again,
but I wouldn't change a thing.

"I'm talking to you today, but I'm not sure how. I know some
things about cancer now. I know you have to pay attention, to
watch for signs on your body, then react. I know you have to do
research, go on the Internet, look for the second opinion, then
the third, find out all your options. I also know you have to be
lucky. That's probably as important as anything. I was very
lucky."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT MAASS Cell mates Lance and wife Kristin had scarcely a moment's peace during their 21 hours in Manhattan.COLOR PHOTO: Y. RUSNIEWSKI/TEMPSORT/NEWSPORT Light fantastic The weight Armstrong (in yellow) lost battling cancer made him a better cyclist in the mountain stages.COLOR PHOTO: LINDA ARMSTRONG Road warrior Armstrong chose a riskier treatment regimen for his cancer because it gave him a better chance of racing again.COLOR PHOTO: PHILLIPE MILLEREAU/DPPI [See caption above]
"If I never had cancer, I never would have won the Tour de
France," said Armstrong. "I'm convinced of that."