This Tuesday, standing before members of his beloved charity LIVESTRONG, Lance Armstrong announced that he is stepping down as chairman of the organization. Amid continuing escalation over his alleged doping during his seven Tour de France wins from 1999 to 2007, Armstrong made the decision to "spare the foundation any negative effects as a result of controversy surrounding my cycling career". The Lance Armstrong Foundation, commonly known as Livestrong, was founded in 1997 to serve people affected by cancer. Since 1997, it has raised over $500 million dollars, with 82% or more of its funds going directly to education, grant, and advocacy programs for cancer survivors.
I became involved with Livestrong in 2004 when I had the opportunity to participate with thousands of other cyclists in the Ride For The Roses in Austin, Texas. I personally met and rode with Lance on that unseasonably blistering hot day in October, and it was an experience I will never forget. Not just because I personally rode and chatted with Lance, and later had him sign autographs. Not because Lance had inspired me to be a strong cancer advocate in my own community, creating a non-profit and running a cycling event raising over $35,000 in four years. It was because of a very special person who later became an important role model to children in my community.
Arriving in Austin the day before, I boarded the bus from the airport to our hotel. While waiting to leave, I struck up a conversation with an energetic sixteen year old named Alex. His excitement and enthusiasm were infectious, and I came to learn that Alex was a cancer survivor. He was in Austin for the Ride For The Roses as the first ever recipient of the Livestrong Junior Spirit of Survivorship Award.
Diagnosed at age 12 with germinoma, a germ cell brain tumor that is a pediatric form of testicular cancer, Alex spent three years enduring eight brain surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, a relapse, a bone marrow transplant (BMT), and more chemotherapy and radiation. And yet, no matter how tired he was, Alex walked the hospital halls encouraging fellow patients to walk with him. Inspired by Lance's book, It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life , Alex had his Trek bike brought into his hospital room so he could ride each day. Alex went into his bone marrow transplant determined to set a record for the shortest hospital stay. He left the hospital in 23 days, breaking the record by two days.
Alex and I rode part of the long, hilly 100 miles in the unbelievably hot Austin countryside together. It was a weekend filled with memories of meeting cancer survivors, hearing their stories, and celebrating their lives. It was a personal accomplishment to ride an especially challenging course and finish it still intact, when grown men were collapsing on the side of the road in the heat. And best of all, I had made a new friend.
I returned to Virginia, and promised Alex we would stay in touch. The following spring, as I was making plans for the next charity cyclng ride, I learned that there was a 4th grade teacher from one of our local elementary schools who was going through chemotherapy and surgery for treatment of colon cancer. Her students were really concerned about her, and saddened by her suffering. I thought they really needed cheering up, and I knew just the person to do it.
I invited Alex to fly out from his hometown of Tucson, Arizona, to Lynchburg, Virginia for the cycling event. I asked him to speak to an assembly of the students at the elementary school. He and his parents gladly agreed. When the day of the assembly arrived, the school gymnasium was filled with 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students, parents, teachers, and local media. As this bundle of energy stood up to speak, the kids' eyes were riveted to the stage. He shared pictures and anecdotes of his cancer story with the kids. He answered their questions, surprisingly mature and frank. And he left them with this quote from his Jr. Spirit of Survivorship Award acceptance speech:
"A Day Well Spent: … imagine a world where everyone wanted to do this, live as if each day were their last, wanting to make a difference … these are the ways that I have decided to battle for my cause, cancer. For you a day well spent may be entirely different from mine but together we can fill the world with hope and happiness." Alex Oden, Cancer Survivor
A few weeks later, the school principal called to tell me that she had some letters from the students for Alex. I picked them up, collected them in an envelope, and mailed them to him. Neither he nor I could measure the impact that experience had on these kids. But one letter in particular may sum it up:
“I appreciate you coming to our school. I think you are so cool. I’m glad you survived cancer. My Grandma had lung cancer and she died recently. I enjoyed your speech about never giving up. I learned no matter how hard your life is, never give up.”
That was seven years ago. Today, Alex is a graduate of Northern Arizona University, where he won three of Northern Arizona University’s most esteemed honors—the President’s Prize, the Gold Axe Award and the Distinguished Senior Award. Currently working on his Master's in Psychology, Alex has been a mentor and role model for the children in NAU community. "Cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me and my family. American society has become so focused on ourselves and on what we can get for ourselves. We have forgotten about the need to help.” There is no doubt in my mind that Alex will continue to be a very, very special young man.
When I read the article this morning about Lance's resignation, I reflected on his life and career, his victories and defeats, his sometimes very personal stories, and his legacy for the cancer community. I reflected on what his story has meant to me, to Alex, to the cancer survivors in Lynchburg, Virginia and all around the world, and to the children in that teacher's class. What I realized is this:
Dear Lance:We are all survivors in some sense of that word. We carry with us the love of these persons, either in their presence or their memory. You may not be able to see their smile or tousle their hair, but when those senses weaken, another heightens. Memory. Memory becomes your partner. You nurture it. You hold it. You dance with it.
"Your impact on us far exceeds anything that you ever achieved on the bike. By choosing to raise funds for Livestrong, I was able to combine a passion and a dream. My love of cycling and my hope to make a difference in the lives of others has become a reality. I want others to have hope, love, and support to save them the unnecessary sadness and anger that I experienced at the loss of my father to cancer. Why? It’s the least I can do. And the best that you have done." Lynn Miller, Cancer Advocate