This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Armstrong brings message of hope,
responsibility for those battling cancer

Lance Armstrong told his story to a crowd at the final Distinguished Speaker Series lecture for 2011-12. Photo: STEVE MORSE

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    Watch a video of the Duel in the Pool.

Published: May 3, 2012

Four hours before champion cyclist Lance Armstrong was due on stage in Alumni Arena, he was kicking furiously down a lane of UB’s Olympic-sized pool in a 50-meter sprint against cancer.

The seven-time Tour de France winner and founder of the Lance Armstrong Foundation had been challenged to a kickboard “Duel in the Pool” by Mary Eggers, an Orchard Park native who works with the Teens Living with Cancer (TLC) program to support teenagers with cancer.

Shortly before Saturday’s race, the Eggers-vs.-Armstrong event had raised $51,000 for TLC. Pocket change for Armstrong’s foundation, which has raised $84 million to date through programs like the popular Nike-sponsored LIVESTRONG campaign, but an impressive total nonetheless. Proceeds of Duel in the Pool will support LIVESTRONG, the TLC program in Rochester and a new TLC chapter in Buffalo at Roswell Park Cancer Institute (RPCI).

Eggers touched the wall first in front of cheering stands full of adoring Lance fans. Blogging about her experience afterward, she noted how the power of social media got Armstrong to Buffalo and into the pool. She also stressed that she and her celebrity competitor weren’t just there to race.

“His and my paths crossed on Twitter and because of that we not only raised all this money, but we are expanding Teens Living With Cancer to Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, filling a much-needed hole in what I consider to be the forgotten age group of cancer victims (age 13-19),” Eggers wrote. “He, like we were…was astounded at the power of social media. How it has shrunk the world and connected us all.”

Armstrong agreed, calling the race “the highlight” of his first visit to Buffalo as the final guest of the 25th anniversary edition of UB’s Distinguished Speakers Series.

Armstrong’s talk was short but genuine, and often poignant. It was bookended by an introduction by Candace Johnson, RPCI deputy director, as well as video highlights of TLC’s programming, Duel in the Pool and a look back at the 25 years of DSS lectures.

Armstrong thanked Eggers, as he acknowledged the millions of teens, adults and children afflicted with “the deadliest disease this world will ever know.”

He also admitted that with the advent of social media, life for a celebrity athlete is completely different today than it was when he first began cycling and was diagnosed in 1996 with advanced testicular cancer. “That was before the Internet was even around,” he pointed out.

Then Armstrong told his own story, which many now know by heart: He was diagnosed with cancer during a breakout year of cycling, after early success as a triathlete. Twelve hours after doctors discovered additional tumors in his lungs and brain, he was scheduled for surgery, and spent months battling a terrifyingly aggressive cancer into remission using experimental treatments that spared his lung capacity enough for him to race. When he returned, triumphant, to the sport he loved, he found that sponsors had disappeared and people told him he’d never compete again.

This only compelled the Austin, Texas, native to join an underdog U.S. Postal Service cycling team, build it into a racing powerhouse and go on to win a record-breaking six more Tours before he retired in 2011.

Armstrong is a changed man from when he was a talented, but underachieving, 22-year-old. The healthy father of five now leads a foundation that has become one of the world’s most powerful lobbies for cutting-edge cancer research. He’s also competing in seven—yes, seven—triathalons this year.

Aside from becoming a proud dad, he says, what changed him the most wasn’t only the Tour wins or the fame. It was embracing the “the obligation of the cured,” a lesson he learned from Craig Nichols, one of his doctors in Indianapolis who spoke to him shortly before he was released from the hospital in December 1996.

Nichols told Armstrong that there were “two exits” out of that building and into his new life—a quiet one with no public admission of his illness, or the public one where he would stand up and support the people who have cancer and who work to cure it.

His decision was immediate, and he said he felt a sense of responsibility has directed his life ever since. “We have opportunities to pay it forward. I want people to know my story as long as I can tell it…it’s y’all’s choice to be engaged.”

During a spirited Q&A after his speech—“This is the best Q&A ever!” he exclaimed at one point—Armstrong took questions from UB students and a long line of fans, patients and survivors, who waited on the floor of the arena wearing a variety of yellow LIVESTRONG bands, T-shirts and hats.

A woman from Buffalo asked him to kiss his mother for her. “I’m a big fan of yours, but I’m a bigger fan of your mother!” she said as Armstrong grinned in agreement and the crowd roared. “My mother always said that she didn’t raise a quitter,” he had quipped earlier in the lecture.

UB student Nick Roba asked Armstrong how to best support someone who has been diagnosed with cancer. Armstrong grew quiet for a moment. “I’ve never been there, luckily, so I can’t tell you how hard that is. But like I’ve told you my story tonight, probably the best thing you can do is to listen,” he said. “That’s what people want, to tell their story.”

The final question, culled from many emails and tweets leading up to the lecture, asked if Armstrong would return to Buffalo to compete in the Ride for Roswell. While his answer wasn’t a clear yes or no (he’ll miss it this year to compete in a triathalon), he commended Roswell Park, UB and their local partners for the event’s significant contributions to local cancer research and encouraged growing charity competitions like it and Duel in the Pool into events like the Pan-Mass Challenge bike-a-thon, an annual cancer fundraiser in Massachusetts with a goal this year of raising $36 million.