FIRST PERSON

Lance Armstrong's lies do not negate efforts to help cancer patients

 

Andrea Torres, a Miami Herald staff writer, has been chronicling her battle with breast cancer in Tuesday’s Tropical Life.

atorres@miamiherald.com

When it comes to Lance Armstrong, I am on his son Luke’s side.

When I watched the famous cyclist’s exclusive interview with Oprah Winfrey last week, I wasn’t watching a hero who had fallen from grace or an arrogant cheater. I was watching a survivor.

It was his first interview since the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency filed formal charges against him for using performance-enhancing drugs, and the cycling’s governing body stripped him of his seven Tour de France victories and banned him from the sport for life. Armstrong said that after he confessed to his 13-year-old son that the accusations were true, his son Luke was remarkably calm.

“I love you ... This won’t change that,” he told his dad, according to Armstrong.

Some cancer survivors have similar thoughts about Armstrong.

After my stage 3 breast cancer diagnosis in 2011, I had to decide whether to freeze my eggs. That was when I had my first encounter with Armstrong’s Livestrong Foundation and its website. Through a program named Fertile Hope, the non-profit offers financial assistance to cancer patients at risk of infertility to cover the cost of sperm banking and egg and embryo freezing. Health insurance doesn’t cover this.

I chose not to harvest my eggs because using fertility drugs in the process increases estrogen, which could cause hormone-receptor-positive cancer cells to grow in my breast.

“What good will the eggs do if I don’t make it out of this alive?” I asked my mom. She had tears in her eyes.

While I didn’t get aid for fertility treatments, many of my new friends dealing with cancer have. Christine Anderson, 27, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells in the bone marrow.

“Because of Livestrong, I was able to harvest my eggs because they covered the meds that would have cost me over $10,000,” Anderson said. “I find it heartbreaking that people are pulling their support. Livestrong doesn’t support Lance, it supports cancer patients.”

Armstrong founded the foundation after he was diagnosed with an advanced form of testicular cancer in 1996. He was 25 when he underwent surgery to remove a testicle. The tumors had spread to his lymph nodes, lung, abdomen and his brain. Before his first round of chemotherapy, Armstrong banked his sperm. Luke was born in 1999.

My friend Jelle Prins, 29, a former athlete from Holland, thinks Armstrong doesn’t deserve any supporters. He questions whether the performance-enhancing drugs may have caused his cancer. In his interview with Oprah, Armstrong said his doctors did not link the drugs to his cancer.

Prins also thinks Armstrong founded Livestrong to enhance his image and boost his sponsorships.

“1) People buy yellow bracelets for awareness. 2) Livestrong gets the money, pays their directors, does some PR for Lance and produces more bracelets for awareness. 3) People buy even more bracelets for even more awareness. 4) In the end, everyone is more hmmm aware,” Prins wrote in a Facebook post. “Board directors are richer and Lance’s image is better and he gets more sponsors.”

Whatever Armstrong’s motives were for founding his foundation, I am grateful that he did. The website, with which he is no longer associated, has been a great companion through my journey.

Also, after my diagnosis, there were two books that helped me stay positive: Lance Armstrong and Sally Jenkins’ It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life (Berkley Trade) and Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s Cheating Death: The Doctors and Medical Miracles That Are Saving Lives Against All Odds (Grand Central Life & Style).

After my second round of chemotherapy, I was lying in bed and felt like someone was kicking me in the stomach. My mom was sleeping in the living room. It was dark. I didn’t want to wake her up, so I cried under my pillow. I knew my body was trying to digest the poison that nurses had administered intravenously the day before.

The day before chemo, I had read Armstrong’s book.

“Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place,” Armstrong wrote.

His words got me through the night.

It’s impossible to tally up the number of people he has hurt with his lies and the people whom he has helped, but I would say the latter is the bigger number. What is remarkable about Armstrong is that he had a productive life after cancer treatment. He was persistent and relentless.

Investigators familiar with Armstrong’s case told ABC News that Armstrong lied to Oprah when he said the last time he used the drugs and transfusions was in 2005. According to the ABC News report, his blood values at the 2009 Tour de France race showed signs of blood manipulation.

"You did not do a blood transfusion in 2009?" Winfrey asked.

"No, 2009 and 2010 absolutely not," Armstrong said.

I didn’t watch Oprah’s interview because I cared about his “confession.’’ I watched it because I wanted to watch the survivor in action. And he was there, resilient, strong and ruthless.

“I will do anything I have to do to survive,” he said.

I believe him.

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