I was in my Toastmasters meeting in the Piano conference room on a beautiful Wednesday morning in 2003 when I first heard about Lance Armstrong.
Megan was up for giving her speech about courage and inspiration. A strong and determined woman. I was not the only one moved beyond words by her speech – her own tears were welled in her eyes as she delivered a powerful account of Lance Armstrong‘s battle with cancer and his surreal comeback to win the Tour de France seven times in a row. She was a commanding speaker that day.
I barely remember the details of her speech but I can still feel the extent to which I was moved by the story. That must be why I did not hesitate a second to pick up “It’s not about the bike” from the San Jose Jamba Juice store a few years later. I wanted to be moved by Lance Armstrong first hand. That and I had always wanted to read a book about an athlete’s life.
The writing is captivating and simple, surprisingly simple and plain for such a powerful story. Life is dark comedy some days. Some of us tag certain others as the luckiest people- a young, handsome, strong cyclist with numerous winner medals which clearly speak for a record of excellent health and stamina is an ideal candidate for one of those lucky people. Not only do we not realize that winning a bike race has less to do with luck than anything else, we have a hard time to fathom how instantly the course of a good life can change even for the least likely candidate. That none of us is safe from the bad hand of cards we could be dealt one day is entirely too much to accept. It was too much to accept for Lance when he first heard the word cancer.
Lance Armstrong is an amazing human being. The odds stacked up against Armstrong’s chances of recovery from the multitudes of health catastrophes attacking his body are as fictional as his come-back post amazing recovery and his full claim to 1st placer winner of Le Tour de France seven times in a row. At what seemed like the height of his early career, he finds out he has an advanced condition of testicular cancer, which has spread to his lungs and his brain – chances of survival quoted to him were less than 3%. He was 25 years old. Life comes crashing down in a single instant in time – and what we do after that instant defines us, and regardless of our destiny, it sets the stage of our new life. How do you sum up courage and hope when only desperation and panic calls as appropriate response for the dire calamity you are about to face? What untouchable source can feed this courage and this hope to a perfectly sound mind that can process the situation rationally and understand the possible outcomes – None of which are good. Lance Armstrong is an amazing human being.
In those brooding days at various hospitals and through the ordeals of his major surgeries, one with removing his testicles and another with cutting into his scalp to remove cancerous legions, his mother was his best friend, his rock and support. He finds out from his agent at the same time that he has brain cancer, his timing could not have been worse as he has no health insurance. When you need the support of others most is when you are down on your luck, and it is ironically much to the regret of itself when Cofidis, the French cycling team, immediately abandoned Armstrong . In fact, all his supporters and sponsors disappeared except one who believed in him against these strong odds: The US Postal Pro Cycling Team.
In this book, you start to get to know a real person, and all his defeats, his hardship, his anger, and you see a winner emerging in face of it all – but it is not without a combination of luck and tenacity. As Lance himself points out some of the irrationality that goes with cancer, sometimes, strong and promising patients do not make it, not with all the positivity and prayer in the world- and some very unlikely, less-healthier, less-likely patients defeat it. It is in the face of this nauseating irony that he continues to hope and believe that he will survive, because to lose the hope would be the real tragedy of it all. It reminded me of a scene in The Shawshank Redemption – a movie that is disturbing to watch and hard to resist – when Andy tells Red that there would be nothing without hope, and losing hope is not an option, even if it takes 20 years to dig his way out of that prison – and as we know, it takes all of 19 – a great movie. This exact frame of mind sums up Lance Armstrong’s feelings on that hospital bed – so there is no option but to go on hoping for a miracle.
“What are my chances? It was a question I’d repeat over and over and over. But it was irrelevant, wasn’t it? It didn’t matter because the medical odds don’t take into account the unfathomable. There is no proper way to estimate somebody’s chances and we shouldn’t try, because we can never be entirely right, and it deprives people of hope. Hope that is the only antidote to fear….I had operated under the simple schematic of winning and losing, but cancer was teaching me a tolerance for ambiguities”
Reading is the best pastime for an active mind! If you like to see the other book reviews, check the index of In Print.
Confronting the news and staying strong and positive is only half the battle. As an advanced cancer patient with precious few options – which surgery, which medication, which hospital, which risk to take and which to mitigate – no amount of self-education and knowledge can be too much. While your mind is whirling with self-pity, paranoia, anxiety and fear, you must exercise supreme discipline to focus on this disease that has overtaken your organs and decide which course of action to take. It is enough to send any one of us for the challenge of a lifetime. Education, however, is what Lance relies on – gathering information and understanding every detail of your situation could very likely be the difference between life or death – the medical community can and will only do so much. It is a patient’s responsibility to be alert and active in all the decisions. The research that Lance and his friends do leads them to the right doctor with the exact specialty and a successful surgery.
With a new chance at life, and a miracle handed from above, Lance goes on to break barriers that the healthiest human beings have not broken yet. He sets new records. He becomes synonymous with cycling the world over. He is the only person – an American no less – to win the Tour de France seven times in a row after fighting and defeating the type of cancer that barely leaves survivors behind, much less those with a strong will to live – and to win.
“Without belief, we would be left with nothing but an overwhelming doom, every single day. And it will beat you. I didn’t fully see, until the cancer, how we fight every day against the creeping negatives of cynicism. Dispiritedness and disappointment, these were the real perils of life, not some sudden illness or cataclysmic millennium doomsday. I knew now why people fear cancer: because it is a slow and inevitable death, it is the very definition of cynicism and loss of spirit. So I believe”
This book is written for all of us so we do not lose perspective in the things that really do not matter, and as we know, it’s all small stuff. Be well, believe and have hope – live as a cancer patient in a healthy world, for they know what really matters, and what truly to live for. The Present.