Lance Armstrong does not like jack-o’-lanterns. This is the father of five who beat cancer and treated bicycle races through mountain ranges like a walk in the park. But when it comes time to carve the pumpkins every Halloween, he leaves the room and lets mom take over.
It’s a haunting reminder of the autumn day more than 15 years ago when his life changed forever. A headache came on suddenly during a night out with friends. He played it off on the drinks they’d been having, but when he coughed up a sink-full of blood the next morning, he knew it was serious.
The doctor he called gave him a check up and cleared him — must have been allergies or something. Armstrong called the doctor back later and mentioned a symptom he had neglected to talk about earlier out of embarrassment.
Armstrong originally assumed his testicular problems were just something that came with sitting on a bike several hours a day. When doctors kept sending him for more and more tests without telling him what was wrong, he began to worry.
He didn’t understand why a chest x-ray was necessary for a problem between his legs. When they told him it was cancer, and it was spreading, it made more sense. He had just spent a full day with doctors. It was after 6 p.m. by the time the results came in, but the next thing they told him was that an emergency surgery was scheduled for 7 a.m. the next morning. No second opinions. No time for even second-guessing, really. Only enough time to save his life.
The cancer had spread to Armstrong’s lungs and brain. Doctors used chemotherapy to treat the cancer in his lungs, modifying the drug regimen to preserve his lung function. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been able to ride competitively ever again.
His brain needed surgery. Dr. Scott Shapiro downplayed it all along, before confessing on the day of the operation just how serious it was. And the metaphor he used to describe the procedure is one that has stuck with Armstrong to this day: Opening his head and removing the cancer would be just like cutting the top off a pumpkin and scooping out all the seeds.
Making jack-o’-lanterns loses its flair when you’ve been the pumpkin.
Before he was finally able to leave the hospital following his recovery, a doctor had a talk with Armstrong about the two paths he could take. If he wanted, he could cover it all up and act like it never happened. The whole losing-a-testicle thing could be pretty embarrassing, and no one would blame him if he didn’t want to talk about it.
The other option was to go public, blatantly public, and tell everyone. His doctor called it “the obligation of the cured,” and Armstrong’s life has been all the better for pursuing it. Getting his story out is why ESPN, Sports Illustrated, ABC and the Associated Press all named him Athlete of the Year on separate occasions. It’s why Nike came to him to start a movement called LIVESTRONG, which has sold over 84 million yellow bracelets for cancer awareness, and telling his story is why Armstrong was invited to speak at the University at Buffalo Saturday night during the 25th anniversary of the school’s Distinguished Speaker Series.
“For as long as I live, I will tell this story,” Armstrong said.
Dressed in khaki pants and a white button-down shirt with three buttons open and an undershirt below, Armstrong entertained a few thousand people in Alumni Arena for almost an hour with cycling stories and cancer research talk before opening the floor to questions.
That yellow wristband on his right arm that’s become synonymous with curing cancer? Armstrong hated the idea when Nike first pitched it. The company originally made the bands for basketball players and called them “baller bands,” which Armstrong found ironic, since Nike wanted to use them to promote a cause that just took one of his balls. Much to his surprise, his group was able to sell the 4 million bands from its original Nike deal, which now account for less than 7 percent of total LIVESTRONG band sales.
And his famous U.S. Postal Service sponsorship, that was probably the best cycling team ever, right? After Armstrong was cleared to race again, he sent out press releases, but no one wanted him. His people started calling teams instead, but no one would take the risk. He thought being sponsored by mailmen was silly for a cyclist. It stopped being so funny when it was the only offer he had.
Most of all, Lance Armstrong was a great example that being famous doesn’t mean you have to be too cool for it all. He was funny and outgoing and was able to relate to the audience without having to force it. He’s been around the world but still speaks like a native Texan. Everything is “y’all’s,” like our Niagara River, which he went running alongside Saturday morning. Noticing a sign pointing out Niagara Falls up ahead, he decided it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. And since it was only 10 miles ahead, he just jogged on over.
Armstrong took the time to explain, in the most acceptable way possible, how exciting it was (though initially very awkward) to learn that after a few years off the bike, his sperm returned to normal and allowed him to have children without scientific help — all tall task from a question asked by a 12-year-old girl.
The seven-time Tour de France winner seemed genuinely concerned that the girl had read his book: “There’s some bad words in there,” he said with a cringe. “When you get to the f-bombs, just look the other way.”
Armstrong also showed his human side when one questioner came to the microphone and thought he was smooth, asking if the world-class athlete had any tips to deal with shin splints. Much to the delight of the audience, Armstrong knocked him back down to earth, telling him he should probably just Google it.
Yes, Armstrong was only on the schedule because Seth MacFarlane, creator of “Family Guy,” canceled, but it seems UB and the City of Buffalo got the better end of this trade.
A killer. Among your best work. Detailed reporting/detail set in a compelling narrative.