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Monday, October 27, 1997

Austin cyclist back on track after cancer

By SUZANNE HALLIBURTON / Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN - Lance Armstrong was delighting in life last week as he sat in a chaise lounge in his back yard, drinking fruit punch and looking over sun-splashed Lake Austin.

The former world champion cyclist was tanned and relaxed, the picture of health and vitality. The blood vessels in his muscular arms and legs were still bulging from his four-hour bicycle ride through the hills of West Austin.

"This has been the greatest year of my life," Armstrong said, almost beaming. "I wouldn't change a thing."

Not even the cancer diagnosis, which he received a year ago this month. On Oct. 2, 1996, doctors told him he had testicular cancer and up to an 85 percent chance of beating it. They lowered those odds to about 50-50 after discovering the disease had spread to his brain.

About the only outward sign that something has been amiss the last year is the inch-long scar just underneath Armstrong's collarbone. That's where doctors inserted a catheter for the chemotherapy drugs that saved his life. His 10-month-old yellow tabby cat, which has the run of his $1 million home, also offers a playful clue that all has not been right. Few healthy people name a pet "Chemo."

After receiving a clean bill of health earlier this month, Armstrong began the first stages of his comeback with the announcement Oct. 16 that he had signed to ride with the U.S. Postal Service Team. His first race will be next spring, when international cycling begins its season.

He has lined up a place to stay in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he plans to spend December and January training in the mountains along the Pacific. He also secured an apartment in the south of France to serve as his home base starting in February, while he competes in the prestigious European races.

Armstrong will spend the rest of the time in Austin, working the Hill Country for his four-hour daily rides.

Armstrong's life has returned to the way it was in 1996, when he competed at the Atlanta Olympics and was pegged as the world's next great cyclist.

However, because of his cancer, Armstrong knows nothing in his rich life will ever be normal again.

"I have such a new perspective on things," said Armstrong, who celebrated his 26th birthday last month. "I spent a lot of time at home this year. I did a lot of different things in terms of traveling and meeting people. I met my girlfriend - she's just the greatest person - and if I'd never been sick, I never would have met her.

"This year has put a lot of things in perspective for me, as a person and a professional cyclist, as an athlete and a human. This year has meant more to me than any other of my 26 years. I'm a better person for it now."

That was no surprise to Dr. Craig Nichols, who helped treat him.

"It is very common for someone who has had an extraordinarily serious illness to be focused on life," Nichols said. "Something like that helps them, the perspective on what's important in life."

A year ago, Armstrong was eating a salad at the Tavern in Austin when he told his friend, J.T. Neal, that he felt pain in his abdomen, that it hurt him to walk. They drove to a local mall and Armstrong complained again. He mentioned he had been coughing up blood but attributed it to allergies. He didn't mention the headaches or blurred vision.

Neal, who was a longtime manager for Armstrong's cycling team, found a doctor who could see Armstrong that afternoon.

"We thought it was a hernia," Neal said.

Three hours later, Armstrong called him with the news that he had testicular cancer.

Doctors removed a testicle and prescribed chemotherapy because the cancer had spread to his abdomen and lungs. Testicular cancer typically affects white men between the ages of 18 and 35. When it is detected early, it has a high cure rate. Armstrong was told that, had he not sought treatment, he would have died within six weeks.

The next week Armstrong announced his illness at an emotionally charged press conference, proclaiming that he would beat the disease. He also urged other men to be aware: This cancer could hit them as well. Newspapers all over the United States and Europe, where Armstrong is as big a celebrity as most NBA stars here, carried the news.

Two weeks later, Armstrong was in the intensive-care unit of University Hospital in Indianapolis. More tests had uncovered two small brain lesions.

They were removed during surgery the next day. The next week, he began an intense course of chemotherapy, designed to eradicate more than 12 tumors, which ranged from about the size of a marble to that of a golf ball, in his lungs and abdomen. He was hospitalized for five days every three weeks until mid-December for his treatments. The chemicals were so harsh that doctors had to constantly monitor his heart and kidneys.

Armstrong, pale and bald from the chemotherapy, proclaimed himself well early this year, although doctors kept close watch on a small spot in his abdomen. The spot has decreased in size, and his monthly blood tests have shown no traces of cancer.

"Clearly, Lance was fortunate, because seven people out of 10 with his same condition would not have had the same gratifying result," said Nichols, a professor of medicine at University Hospital.

Armstrong's physical strength was a factor, Nichols said. "He was in such good condition he was able to tolerate the treatments very well."

Even after the positive results of chemotherapy, Armstrong still worried about recurrences.

"When we were in Europe this summer, he would get hot flashes and get lightheaded," said Kristin Richard, Armstrong's girlfriend, who used to work for an ad agency involved in a benefit event for Armstrong. "He would then be kind of quiet. I'd ask him if he was OK, and you knew he was kind of afraid."

He also helped two close friends who were going through similar experiences. Neal was diagnosed with a form of leukemia more than a year ago. A photo of Armstrong and Neal, in which both are bald, is one of his most precious keepsakes.

Stacy Pounds, a secretary for Armstrong's agent who booked Armstrong's media interviews, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer a month after Armstrong completed chemotherapy. Armstrong went with her to receive her chemotherapy treatments, and when Pounds' disease progressed, he helped arrange for home nursing care.

He was with her in the hospital the day she died. He spoke at her memorial service earlier this month.

"Stacy was like a mother to me," Armstrong said. "I lasted about 5 minutes at her memorial service before I broke down."

On Oct. 2, Richard threw a party at Armstrong's home to celebrate his clean bill of health and the one-year anniversary of his diagnosis. The party's theme was "La Dolce Vita," the good life. Thirty of Armstrong's closest friends drank wine and feasted on beef tenderloin. Dessert was chocolate cake, decorated in white icing with "Carpe Diem," seize the day, Armstrong's favorite slogan.

All the guests wrote notes to Armstrong, explaining what he meant in each of their lives. The notes were placed in an album. After the party, with only his girlfriend and parents present, Armstrong read the notes out by the pool.

"Lyle Lovett was playing, and Lance was dancing with me, then he'd dance with his mother," Richard said. "He told me it was the happiest night of his life. There was such joy in him."

Linda Walling, his mother, said: "We were either smiling or crying. It was so touching to know that so many people cared. It's incredible. That night was such a celebration."

Armstrong, not knowing whether he would live, spent much of this year doing both the mundane and the spectacular. He lounged at his home, chased Chemo up palm trees and planted flowers and shrubs in his yard instead of hiring a gardener.

He also logged 50,000 frequent-flier miles. He fished in Alaska, honed his golf game and played in more charity tournaments across the country than he could count. He made two tours with the band the Wallflowers. A member of the band is a big cycling fan and contacted Armstrong earlier this year. A guitar used by one of the band members is on display near Armstrong's fireplace.

He also took Richard on a two-week trip to Europe in July in conjunction with the Tour de France. They stopped in France, Monaco and Spain.

"We went to Pamplona for the running of the bulls," Richard said. "We stayed up all night drinking and dancing. It was so funny, because it was the first time Lance had ever stayed up all night."

Armstrong has a rigid lifestyle in front of him; he carefully watches his training and diet so that he can get back to the top of the international cycling circuit.

Bill Stapleton, Armstrong's agent, said his client is more marketable now than he was before the cancer, although he said many cycling teams view him as "damaged goods." Cofidis, his former team, dropped him on Sept. 1 because officials said they needed to go in another direction. Several weeks after Armstrong's diagnosis, the team renegotiated his contract, lowering his salary from $1.2 million to about $800,000 because he could not pass a physical.

Armstrong will receive a base of about $400,000 from the U.S. Postal Service. His contract is laced with performance-based incentives, and he could make as much as he did back in 1996.

This summer Armstrong picked up a new sponsor in CycleOps, which is producing a training bike. He also has a shoe deal with Nike and a sunglasses endorsement with Oakley.

"Lance isn't just a cyclist anymore - because of the cancer, the Lance Armstrong brand has a much broader appeal," Stapleton said. "Our challenge is to leverage that now. He's on the verge of being a crossover-type spokesman. He could be just like an athlete who does a Pepsi or Gatorade commercial. If his comeback has success, we hope to take him to a Kodak or Sony and hope they will turn him into a corporate pitchman.

"We're really just beginning. In January and February people will realize that Lance is back on the bike. And once they realize it, that's when the marketing will pay off."

Armstrong still is heavily involved with promoting cancer awareness.

Members of his newly formed Lance Armstrong Foundation will meet in Austin for the first time this weekend. He is also on the board of directors of the Indiana University Cancer Center.

Before his diagnosis, Armstrong used to hand out business cards that said he was a cyclist. Now, he hands out cards proclaiming him a board member.

"He has a message to tell people," his mother said. "It's such a good message."

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