Why Lance Armstrong will always be a hero

Why Lance Armstrong will always be a heroLike many of you, I have been reading the various news stories about Lance Armstrong, especially one recently in a major newspaper, which went into great detail about the allegations surrounding Lance Armstrong’s cycling career.

But what I didn’t see in all of that coverage was much mention of the other side of the man, the side that I witnessed up close and personal one Friday in Texas a couple of years ago, the side that has led me to share my thoughts with you today.

I saw something that day that I had never-let me repeat, never-seen before. It was a moment that has forever influenced my opinion of Mr. Armstrong, even as these various charges have swirled about him these past couple of years. And the impression it created was indelible.

I am not here to hash/rehash the incriminations. I am here to stand up and say that no matter what the truth is regarding the allegations, this is a man who has forever changed the cancer landscape for millions of people in this country and around the world.

This is a man who lent his prestige and his personal power to a cause that was dear to him, in what I believe a heartfelt and selfless effort to make the lives of others more comfortable, and more meaningful. This is a man who has offered hope to those in emotional and physical pain, and no matter what he may or may not have done, no one should ever dismiss or forget his accomplishments for our humanity.

The circumstance was a fairly straight forward political issue:  a proposal had been made in the Texas legislature to support a $3 billion fund to be dispersed through a competitive review process over the following 10 years to support cancer research in the state of Texas. It had-as expected-met some fairly stiff opposition. There were a number of groups lined up to support the bill, including the American Cancer Society, and they had been lobbying continuously to get the bill passed. However, the legislators were not particularly anxious to commit the funds.

A hearing was scheduled for the state Senate on a Friday. I was attending a Society meeting in Austin which concluded that Thursday, and was asked to remain to testify on behalf of the Society on Friday, which I agreed to do.

Friday morning started with a press event in the state capitol, attended by a number of organizational representatives, some supportive legislators, and “hosted” by Mr. Armstrong. From there, there were visits to some of the senators to try to gain their support, and then long periods of waiting primarily in the Senate gallery where I had the pleasure of observing the Senators coming and going and doing their business.

I looked around, hoping to get the opportunity to meet Mr. Armstrong, but he was nowhere to be seen. After all, who wouldn’t want a chance to have a couple of moments to talk with one of the most famous athletes on the planet?

As I asked what he was doing-even in fact whether he was doing anything regarding the bill that day-I heard he was going from office to office, confronting each Senator directly, and asking them whether or not they were going to support the bill. And, so I understand, he let them know directly that he would share their responses with his constituency.

While he was doing his background work-without a large entourage-we were waiting for our hearing. As best I recall, it was around 7 or 7:30PM that night when the hearing finally convened.

Sitting in the hearing room, our panel was called to testify. Seated at the desks above us was a single Senator, who was the chair of the committee that would be holding the vote on whether or not this legislation would move forward to the full Senate. He was a strong opponent of the legislation, and if you know state politics, the chair’s opinion holds great weight with other committee members. The nose count was still showing the bill would not pass.

No other senator bothered to show up as our panel was called to testify. I started off, followed by physician leaders from two major Texas cancer centers in San Antonio and Houston. The testimony was supportive, and went as well as could be expected, touting the benefits of cancer research for patients and the economy, extolling the virtue and the power of the cancer research enterprise in the state. The questions from the chair were perfunctory, and frankly unanswerable (“Dr., how much money will it take to cure cancer?” is one example).

Then it was Mr. Armstrong’s turn. By then, the other senators had filed in and filled all of the seats on the dais. The room was quiet in anticipation of what he would say.

I don’t remember everything that Mr. Armstrong said that night. And my recollection may be a bit fuzzy. But I will never, never, never forget the power and the emotion that came from him that evening. Here was a man who had been cured from an incurable cancer. Here was a man who had achieved incredible athletic feats. Here was a man who had a reputation of being as steely as they come.

He told us that there was somewhere he would rather be that night. His step-sister was getting married, and that night was the rehearsal dinner. The emotions welled up as he told all of us how his sister’s mother had died from breast cancer, how important his sister was to him, and how much she missed her mother. He told us that he really wanted to be with her to support her in her moment of happiness, recognizing that there was also sadness mixed into the equation. There were tears in his eyes.

He went on to say that no matter how important it was he be there for his family, it was more important that he be in that committee room that night to support this legislation. He talked about the importance of cancer research, its meaning to the state, and its meaning to patients.

My friends, I have seen and participated in  a lot of legislative testimony. I will tell you hands down I have never witnessed anything so powerful as I witnessed that night.

The vote was unanimous to pass the legislation out of committee, including the “yea” from the recalcitrant chairman. No one could ignore the force of one man on that one evening.

The bill went on to move from the legislature to a statewide vote, and was passed again in no small part due to the efforts of Mr. Armstrong. It is now funding cancer research throughout the state as the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).

We take the measure of people in our lives in many ways. We all have strengths, and we all have weaknesses. Some of us are destined for greatness and goodness, and we are reminded frequently that there is often something redeeming about even the most malicious among us.

I will not stand idly by and let the world ignore the greatness that I witnessed that night in Texas. Lance Armstrong is a man who devoted himself to cancer survivorship in a way that few before him ever did. He created a foundation that gave a vision to survivorship, especially among young adults. He created a mission that will live long past him, and will survive whatever people choose to make of the events surrounding him. He has taken the message of survivorship to the world with a power that no one else possesses.

I have had the honor of working with the Lance Armstrong Foundation and its wonderful group of staff and volunteers on a number of occasions since that evening. They are a terrific group of very committed people. I don’t have a lot of “real estate” on me to advertise various causes. I do proudly wear my American Cancer Society lapel pin. On my right wrist I have two bands: one is a red one from Texas State University in honor of the wonderful work the students and professors there have done to support cancer awareness, especially among the Latino community. The other is the well-known yellow band from the Livestrong foundation.

I wear that yellow band in honor of the work they do, but I also wear it in honor of a man who one late Friday evening was a tour de force in letting the world know not only what his priorities were, but where his heart was as well.

Nothing will ever erase the memory and the emotions I felt that Friday night, and nothing should ever diminish what Lance Armstrong has done for so many in their time of desperate need. He has given them hope and he has given them purpose. His work will always stand as a true measure of his heart.

Let us never forget that for me and the many others he has impacted through his accomplishments on behalf of cancer survivors worldwide, Lance Armstrong will always be a hero.

J. Leonard Lichtenfeld is deputy Chief Medical Officer for the national office of the American Cancer Society. He blogs at Dr. Len’s Cancer Blog.

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