Fast. Determined. Persistent.
Lance Armstrong's ability to focus on a goal has taken him from start to finish, usually ahead of the pack. These characteristics and a proclivity for overcoming challenges prepared this cyclist to face Olympians in Barcelona, professionals in the Tour de France, and testicular cancer.
In 1991, Armstrong was the U.S. National Amateur Champion. The following year, he came in 111th out of 111 in the World Cup Event in Spain. While others might have quit in disgust, Lance remained undaunted. "I was dead last," he says about that race, "but at least I finished. About 200 guys started the race and about 80 quit." Back in the saddle again, Lance won a stage in Spain's Tour of Galicia a week later.
If that comeback made 1992 a dynamic year for the young Texan, 1993 was dynamite. In his first year as a professional, Armstrong gathered 10 wins and trained like a race horse, riding 500-600 miles per week in 25-30 hours. During this year, he reached both World and U.S. PRO Championship status, won the Triple Crown, and took Team Motorola into the top five world-ranking teams, a first for the United States.
"I was dead last ... but at least I finished. About 200 guys started the race and about 80 quit."
Armstrong was the 1995 Tour Du Pont Champion, became a Stage 18 winner of the Tour de France, and was named the VeloNews American Male Cyclist of the Year. Lance seemed to hit his stride as he headed into 1996. He repeated his 1995 successes in the Tour de France and the Tour Du Pont, and had signed a two-year contract to race for legendary French racing team director, Cyrille Guimard, when suddenly his life turned upside down.
In a press conference on October 8, 1996, Armstrong announced he had been diagnosed with an advanced form of testicular cancer six days earlier. Doctors at St. David's Hospital had successfully removed the malignant testicle on October 3, but further tests showed the cancer had spread to his abdomen and lungs. During his first cycle of chemotherapy, Lance's medical team consulted with other oncologists at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Indiana University, who suggested a brain scan. The results confirmed that cancer had reached the brain.
Although the hospital staff assured Armstrong that his lesions were small and easy to reach, there was no avoiding the fact that he was facing brain surgery. He was told that his chances were less than 50 percent.
Had he known all of this from the beginning, Lance admits he would have been terrified. "It worked out better that I got the news gradually," he says. "The odds I faced were distracting and upsetting but, as bad as they were, I viewed them as a little bit of hope because they could have been worse."
With his eyes on the glass half full, Armstrong entered the biggest event of his life. The young man who had made sport out of precision and endurance was now in the hands of medical professionals who were experts in both.
During six hours of surgery, two silver-dollar sized holes were drilled in the top and back of his head. Electronic technology in the hands of skilled surgeons resulted in the successful location and removal of the virulent cells.
In January 1997, the Lone Star athlete returned to training. Unfortunately, his French team sponsors soon withdrew their support. "I wasn't treated very fairly in that situation," Lance says, "but it just goes to show you how people will react to you and treat you as a cancer patient."
Once again, the comeback kid chose to see this challenge as a detour rather than a stop sign. In October 1997, one year after announcing his cancer diagnosis, Lance called another press conference.
"This past year has been the greatest year of my life," he said, surprising only those who did not know him well. "I have spent most of my time battling for my life." Next, Lance took time to thank family members, friends, business associates, sponsors and fans. "Thank you for believing in me, and continuing to support me in my darkest hour," he said.
Finally, Armstrong announced his decision to ride for the U.S. Postal Service Professional Cycling Team in 1998. "I am extremely excited to be riding not only for an American team, but for one that has stepped up and shown me that they truly believe in my ability to stage a comeback in professional cycling."
Supporters can follow Lance Armstrong's progress by visiting his website at www.lancearmstrong.com. The website includes detailed information about Lance's career, his current training program, the Lance Armstrong Foundation, and the May 23, 1998, charity event, Ikon Ride for the Roses.
Fans who have followed Lance Armstrong since he won the Iron Kids triathlon at 16 will find a different competitor in the peloton. He is still fast, determined and persistent. But he no longer lives to race. He races to live.
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Read more about Lance Armstrong and the Tour of Hope™ from Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2003.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 1998.