Something more important than titles
His picture was taped to the corner of a white board hanging inside the small room I was essentially trapped in for 30 days.
I looked at it every morning when I woke up and every night before I hopelessly attempted to sleep. The photo was of Lance Armstrong riding alone through golden wheat fields en route to his seventh consecutive Tour de France title. It was the cover of the Aug. 1, 2005, issue of Sports Illustrated, and was sent to me by my co-workers at the magazine before I checked into the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center on Aug. 2, 2005. I had been diagnosed with cancer -- non-Hodgkin's lymphoma -- for the second time in four years and was preparing to undergo a stem-cell transplant after three extensive rounds of chemotherapy. The next 30 days would go a long way toward determining whether I would see my 26th birthday.
It's hard to believe it's been seven years since then. The one constant, at least on television and in the newspapers, during my fight with cancer in 2001, and again in 2005, was Armstrong. Both my diagnoses came in the summer, and the Tour de France was seemingly always on as I went in for treatments and checkups in July. I didn't know a thing about cycling then and still don't know much, but that didn't matter to me or to the other patients I would talk to in the hospital. As we sat in our reclining chairs, being injected with drugs the names of which we could hardly pronounce, we watched Armstrong climb the Alps and the Pyrenees and put on that yellow jersey for rides through the Champs-Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe.
We would high-five each other like we were watching a sport we actually knew something about. None of us cared about cycling or the Tour de France. We couldn't tell you who won the Tour de France before or after Armstrong. We couldn't name a single cyclist outside of Armstrong because they didn't matter to us. We couldn't identify with any of them. The only one that mattered to us was Armstrong. He had presumably sat in chairs like ours, in similar hospital rooms. He had no doubt been pumped with similar drugs. And now he was on top of the world. He was the best athlete in his sport, and he didn't just do it once and ride off into the sunset; he did it a record seven straight times. That yellow jersey, that glorious maillot jaune that Armstrong wore each time he raised his hands in victory symbolized so much more than the Tour de France. It symbolized the fairy-tale ending all of us in the hospital were hoping to achieve. Who knows, maybe it was just a fairly tale after all.
Thursday's news that Armstrong had been banned from cycling for life and stripped of his Tour de France titles after he decided to stop challenging allegations that he took performance-enhancing drugs was a huge blow. Not to cycling, which has more doping problems than baseball, but to cancer patients and survivors, who must now look at their hero in a different light. Some are pointing to the irony of a "fighter" such as Armstrong quitting during, perhaps, the second biggest-fight of his life. I've always hated the term "fighting" when it comes to cancer. As I remember it, the battle was fairly one-sided and I didn't do much of anything but endure it and pray that I would somehow find a way to win.
Maybe that's how Armstrong viewed this whole ordeal before he finally realized he couldn't win and tapped out. I'm not naive enough to say I'm surprised. I've read enough about the accusations against him over the past several years to wonder whether he had been on something during his unprecedented run. I know that's supposed to make me feel differently about Armstrong. It's supposed to make me feel somehow cheated or betrayed by him, but it doesn't. While organizations can strip someone of their titles and records, I can't revise the history of my feelings.
Armstrong gave me and millions of other cancer patients a gift far more important than a Tour de France title or a yellow wristband during his magical run. He gave us hope.
And as tainted as that may seem now, it's a gift I'm not about to forfeit.