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Armstrong inspires others to be strong

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 24, 2002


They arrive every few minutes, a faceless gathering of stories and words. Separated by distance and culture, yet united by a common ordeal.

A cancer patient awaiting test results in Holland. A woman in Ottawa riding her bicycle to the hospital for radiation treatments. A 12-year-old in New Jersey listening to taunts of bullies because he has but one testicle.

It seems they share an enemy and a hero, and precious little else. Somehow they find their way here on the Internet, to the guest book link at lancearmstrong.com, where they can celebrate or commiserate, depending on their relationship with life.

If you've not yet heard, Lance Armstrong is safely ahead of the field and way ahead of the curve. The three-time defending champion has a 4:21 cushion in the Tour de France and a five-year lead in his battle with cancer.

He is the best cyclist America has produced and, as far as his followers are concerned, that does not top his list of accomplishments.

John Warner, a 33-year-old Navy flight officer with four daughters, is in his car in Chesapeake, Va. A day after posting a message on Armstrong's Web site, he talks about his experience with testicular cancer and the bond he feels with Armstrong.

"I'm on my way home from the hospital right now. I've got an incision that goes from my sternum to my crotch," said Warner, a former St. Petersburg resident. "I'm just starting to work out again. It's good to know there's someone else out there who didn't believe the (statistics) and is still kicking a-- and taking names.

"I'm not a cycling fan. I'm a Lance Armstrong fan."

Armstrong already was a millionaire and a cycling star when he was told he had testicular cancer after coughing up a gob of blood at age 25 in 1996.

Within 24 hours of his diagnosis, he had surgery to remove a testicle. A day after leaving the hospital he was told chemotherapy had to begin immediately because the cancer had spread to his lungs. A week later, he learned he had brain cancer and further surgery was needed.

Armstrong's chance for survival was pegged at 40 percent by his doctor. Much later, when recovery appeared complete, the doctor confided he actually figured Armstrong's chances were no better than 20 percent.

He endured three operations and four months of chemotherapy. Fewer than three years later, he rode a bicycle more than 2,200 miles through the French Alps to win the Tour de France.

"It's a frightening thing to hear you have cancer," Sara Laser says by phone from Fairfield, Pa., where she has been battling the disease for 10 years and recently had part of her right lung removed. "I liked the way Lance approached it. He just jumped right in and started looking for the best doctors available. That's what I've done. I've tried to look at it as just another disease and not the end of the world.

"There were times, after my surgery last summer, when I had trouble walking to the end of the driveway. And I would think, 'If Lance can make it up that mountain, I can make it down the driveway.' "

Armstrong has a puckered wound just above his heart where a catheter was inserted. A surgical scar runs along the right side of his groin to his upper thigh. Two deep half-moons in his scalp are reminders of brain surgery.

And he insists cancer was the best thing that ever happened to him. For all the destruction it wrought, cancer also taught him about life.

It taught him about the love of family and friends. The strength of human spirit. It showed him how life was meant to be lived.

Once considered brash and arrogant, characterizations he does not dispute, Armstrong now appears thoughtful and engaging.

He met his wife a month after therapy ended. They now have a 3-year-old son who was conceived using sperm Armstrong had frozen the day after his initial surgery before chemotherapy left him sterile.

"I don't know how you could not be inspired by him," said Susan Jones, a breast cancer survivor in Edmonton. "Overcoming cancer is certainly part of it, but it's more the complete package.

"It was the grittiness. That attitude that nothing was going to stop him. He's kept this sense of normalcy in his life. This vision that he was going to get through this. That's how I wanted to look at it. That beyond this disease, I still have the rest of my life waiting for me."

Armstrong was asked recently if he'd rather be known as a cancer survivor or as a cycling great.

He chose cancer survivor.

In his book, It's Not About the Bike, Armstrong writes he forever will be a member of the cancer community. That he considers it his obligation to do something better with his life and to help others dealing with the disease.

After winning the Tour de France for the second time, in 2000, reporters said it must be refreshing to no longer have questions about his cancer recovery. Armstrong shook his head.

Given the chance, he said, he would talk about cancer to anyone willing to listen.

Roger and Debi Trauth were a few months from a planned adoption of a 3-year-old child from Russia in the fall of 2000. Weeks after a routine physical required for the adoption, Roger developed a nagging cough. This was followed by weight loss. Then severe fatigue.

After a series of tests, it was discovered he had tumors in his liver that had spread from his colon. An oncologist suggested he would live 6 months with treatment or 4-6 weeks without.

Two years later, Roger's fight continues. He has left his job as a real estate appraiser in Cincinnati and Debi quit working for 13 months to be closer to him. They drained two savings accounts and one retirement fund and gave up their dream of adoption.

Roger recently volunteered to speak to groups about the importance of early cancer detection. Like Armstrong, he feels he has something to say.

"Once it's touched your life, you're never the same," Roger said. "I had never thought about it before. Cancer was something that happened to other people. Once it happens, you get a little more philosophical about life.

"Having a colonoscopy is pretty much a nonevent. But it was one of those things I kept putting off. It was a combination of fear and being too busy. If I had done it like I should have, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

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