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