something on my mind

Last week, in an Oprah Winfrey interview we heard Lance Armstrong, the world-class Olympic cyclist confess to having used several performance enhancing drugs to achieve his string of seven Tour de France medals during the period 1999 to 2005. These medals were stripped from him late last year, and recently the Olympic bronze medal from the 2000 Sydney games as well. Lance is a proud man, a fighter—a winner at all costs sort of person. Oprah did a magnificent job of drawing him out from shadow to full light truth. She did this by offering him kind, compassionate support all the way home. He needed that and she, out of her storehouse of experiences, could give it. I don’t think she skipped a beat.

For two hours I watched and listened to two amazing persons reveal themselves to the world: one a fallen celebrity newly discovering his feet of clay, the other a celebrity interviewer/entrepreneur who has never hidden hers, even from herself. This is a distinction of importance as I look through the pages of my own book of life. I find identity in both areas and I am not at ease.

I am annoyed with Lance Armstrong, not for the doping, arrogant lying and power-driven will to win, win, win, but for the cancer mythology he helped to perpetuate through the LIVESTRONG theme of the foundation bearing his name. The foundation has done good work and raised millions of dollars for research, but it did that based on Armstrong’s own cancer experience turned into the thematic slogan: LIVESTRONG. Many thousands of people carried this message to heart—persons unlucky enough to have contracted the disease, were caretakers for them, or otherwise touched by the disease.

In 1996, Armstrong was diagnosed with late-stage, metastatic, testicular cancer that had spread to his abdomen, lungs and brain. He ignored the warning signs at the early, easily treatable stage of this cancer, common in men aged 15-35. Had his body not been as fit as it was, he may very well have been a statistic instead of a survivor of heroic proportions. LIVESTRONG worked for him because it was his personal modus operandi. People want and need heroes. He was a winner, so the slogan became a word to live by for many, but not for me. I survived cancer and didn’t have the strength to live strong for a very long time. I simply survived. It took many years to overcome the side effects of the treatment, some of them permanent.  I am still surviving. There is a 50/50 chance that my cancer will return at some point. I live with that daily. Is that living strong or living true?

The yellow LIVESTRONG wristband always turned me off. I didn’t know what it meant and still don’t. In the absence of broader knowledge of this disease, responsibility for outcome tends to shift to the sufferer. How does one live strong when the drugs that flow intravenously through the body every three weeks (or less) leave you chemically depressed, thin as a bone, bald as a bat, sick and wobbly as a toddler learning to walk? Does that mean soldiering on through, fighting on through, or what? Cancer is still incurable. Oncology speaks of remission these days, not cure. So, is remission the goal of living strong? Is that what is meant by “beating it?” I don’t know. We see the happy faces of cancer survivors in commercials and advertising. We don’t see the thousands of people permanently disfigured and/or impaired by the side effects of these chemical cocktails, nor do we understand that each recurrence of the disease further weakens the body’s ability to counter. We don’t see the epitaphs of those who apparently didn’t live strong enough to survive. We aren’t ready yet to admit that the war on cancer, started 40+ years ago by President Nixon, has not produced cure. Treatments are better and drugs are becoming smarter, but it is still treatment that will be deemed barbaric some hundred years or so in the future.

I would like to hear another interview where Armstrong takes responsibility for misleading the public into thinking a catchy jingle could make us all strong survivors. We aren’t. If he does this he will be a true leader and a strong advocate. Cancer is still a dark thief riding a dark horse in the darkest of nights for most of us.  Both my niece and my sister lived their cancer as best they could…some might say strong, but the endings were not pretty. After Adopted Daughter died of cancer, I found the yellow bracelet among her things. I recoiled at the sight of it and tossed it out. My loss was too great to even look at the talisman she thought would help her. If I had it today, I’d take a scissor and sever the LIVE from the STRONG. I’d throw out the STRONG and pin-up the LIVE in my studio to remind me of what surviving is all about, at least for me: living authentically, gracefully and joyously.Type Embellishments_H 36pt_white.


1) My personal cancer story, Dying to Live: My Cancer Odyssey, was written in 2007 and can be seen on my website: www.inheritanceproject-2.com – project 5.  2) Reports on Lance Armstrong, the foundation, the interview, other cancer survivor’s opinions can easily be found online. Your comments to this posting are welcome.

7 Responses to “something on my mind”

  1. 1 judy studenski
    January 24, 2013 at 10:41 am

    Wow, NP, well put. You’ve expressed your experience with strength and honesty. Oprah should be talking to you.

  2. 3 Anne
    January 24, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    In no way am I defending Armstrong or the yellow bracelet, nor do I intend to diminish anything you’ve written…BUT…I want to AFFIRM the strength I witnessed in you, albeit from miles away, as you went through your cancer experience. I know you didn’t feel strong but I believe it took strength to go through those horrible treatments; strength to even will yourself to live; strength to create art out of suffering. I believe it takes strength to live authentically as you have always strived to do. Even though you live with the 50/50 possibility of a recurrence you live more fully than many who are younger or who have never had a life-threatening illness. And, despite the terrible losses to cancer of those near and dear, you have not given up. So, in my humble opinion, I would say that is living true as well as living strong. (in reading this over I suppose the word courage could easily be substituted for the word strength)

    • 4 Naomi
      January 24, 2013 at 2:57 pm

      You are kind, dear old friend of 40+ years. I accept what you say as your view, but really…cancer is just something to live through according to the grace of one’s DNA. I come from a long line of survivors and don’t feel I can legitimately claim this quality as my own. Surviving is just that and doesn’t feel particularly heroic to me. What does feel significant is dealing with the memories whenever they come up, sometimes like the disease itself…dark thief in the dark night. Cancer is a kind of loss. I’m not good at loss.

  3. January 25, 2013 at 11:05 am

    The six year old child of a friend is fighting cancer. His nine-year-old brother was sitting in the lounge of the hospital when a woman inquired why he was in the hospital. He told of his brother’s illness. She said to him, “If you pray hard enough, he will be healed.” Alas.

  4. 7 Stacey Farran
    February 7, 2013 at 8:58 pm

    Thank you, Naomi. I read his book, “It’s Not About the Bike” just last year. I loved it, but of course it is tainted now. No doubt this man triumphed over much (regardless of the steroids). I, too, have never been a fan of those wristbands and other paraphernalia. Always seemed too trendy. And seemed to send the message that if you just try hard enough, you can beat cancer. Well, I know enough people who tried damn hard and never made it. Some of these same people seemed to die stronger than many of us live, in fact. Anyway, I would have liked to see Oprah’s interview! Thanks for your thoughts!

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