Before and After
I want to die at a hundred years old with an American flag on my back and the star of Texas on my helmet, after screaming down an Alpine descent on a bicycle at 75 miles per hour. I want to cross one last finish line as my stud wife and my ten children applaud, and then I want to lie down in a field of those famous French sunflowers and gracefully expire, the perfect contradiction to my once-anticipated poignant early demise.
A slow death is not for me. I don’t do anything slow, not even breathe. I do everything at a fast cadence: eat fast, sleep fast. It makes me crazy when my wife, Kristin, drives our car, because she brakes at all the yellow caution lights, while I squirm impatiently in the passenger seat.
“Come on, don’t be a skirt,” I tell her.
“Lance,” she says, “marry a man.”
I’ve spent my life racing my bike, from the back roads of Austin, Texas to the Champs-Elysées, and I always figured if I died an untimely death, it would be because some rancher in his Dodge 4x4 ran me headfirst into a ditch. Believe me, it could happen. Cyclists fight an ongoing war with guys in big trucks, and so many vehicles have hit me, so many times, in so many countries, I’ve lost count. I’ve learned how to take out my own stitches: all you need is a pair of fingernail clippers and a strong stomach.
If you saw my body underneath my racing jersey, you’d know what I’m talking about. I’ve got marbled scars on both arms and discolored marks up and down my legs, which I keep clean-shaven. Maybe that’s why trucks are always trying to run me over; they see my sissy-boy calves and decide not to brake. But cyclists have to shave, because when the gravel gets into your skin, it’s easier to clean and bandage if you have no hair.
One minute you’re pedaling along a highway, and the next minute, boom, you’re facedown in the dirt. A blast of hot air hits you, you taste the acrid, oily exhaust in the roof of your mouth, and all you can do is wave a fist at the disappearing taillights.
Cancer was like that. It was like being run off the road by a truck, and I’ve got the scars to prove it. There’s a puckered wound in my upper chest just above my heart, which is where the catheter was implanted. A surgical line runs from the right side of my groin into my upper thigh, where they cut out my testicle. But the real prizes are two deep half-moons in my scalp, as if I was kicked twice in the head by a horse. Those are the leftovers from brain surgery.
When I was 25, I got testicular cancer and nearly died. I was given less than a 40 percent chance of surviving, and frankly, some of my doctors were just being kind when they gave me those odds. Death is not exactly cocktail-party conversation, I know, and neither is cancer, or brain surgery, or matters below the waist. But I’m not here to make polite conversation. I want to tell the truth. I’m sure you’d like to hear about how Lance Armstrong became a Great American and an Inspiration To Us All, how he won the Tour de France, the 2,290-mile road race that’s considered the single most grueling sporting event on the face of the earth. You want to hear about faith and mystery, and my miraculous comeback, and how I joined towering figures like Greg LeMond and Miguel Indurain in the record book. You want to hear about my lyrical climb through the Alps and my heroic conquering of the Pyrenees, and how it felt. But the Tour was the least of the story.
Some of it is not easy to tell or comfortable to hear. I’m asking you now, at the outset, to put aside your ideas about heroes and miracles, because I’m not storybook material. This is not Disneyland, or Hollywood. I’ll give you an example: I’ve read that I flew up the hills and mountains of France. But you don’t fly up a hill. You struggle slowly and painfully up a hill, and maybe, if you work very hard, you get to the top ahead of everybody else.
Cancer is like that, too. Good, strong people get cancer, and they do all the right things to beat it, and they still die. That is the essential truth that you learn. People die. And after you learn it, all other matters seem irrelevant. They just seem small.
I don’t know why I’m still alive. I can only guess. I have a tough constitution, and my profession taught me how to compete against long odds and big obstacles. I like to train hard and I like to race hard. That helped, it was a good start, but it certainly wasn’t the determining factor. I can’t help feeling that my survival was more a matter of blind luck.
When I was 16, I was invited to undergo testing at a place in Dallas called the Cooper Clinic, a prestigious research lab and birthplace of the aerobic exercise revolution. A doctor there measured my VO2 max, which is a gauge of how much oxygen you can take in and use, and he says that my numbers are still the highest they’ve ever come across. Also, I produced less lactic acid than most people. Lactic acid is the chemical your body generates when it’s winded and fatigued—it’s what makes your lungs burn and your legs ache.
Basically, I can endure more physical stress than most people can, and I don’t get as tired while I’m doing it. So I figure maybe that helped me live. I was lucky—I was born with an above-average capacity for breathing. But even so, I was in a desperate, sick fog much of the time.
My illness was humbling and starkly revealing, and it forced me to survey my life with an unforgiving eye. There are some shameful episodes in it: instances of meanness, unfinished tasks, weakness, and regrets. I had to ask myself, “If I live, who is it that I intend to be?” I found that I had a lot of growing to do as a man.
I won’t kid you. There are two Lance Armstrongs, pre-cancer, and post. Everybody’s favorite question is “How did cancer change you?” The real question is how didn’t it change me? I left my house on October 2, 1996, as one person and came home another. I was a world-class athlete with a mansion on a riverbank, keys to a Porsche, and a self-made fortune in the bank. I was one of the top riders in the world and my career was moving along a perfect arc of success. I returned a different person, literally. In a way, the old me did die, and I was given a second life. Even my body is different, because during the chemotherapy I lost all the muscle I had ever built up, and when I recovered, it didn’t come back in the same way.
The truth is that cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me. I don’t know why I got the illness, but it did wonders for me, and I wouldn’t want to walk away from it. Why would I want to change, even for a day, the most important and shaping event in my life?
People die. That truth is so disheartening that at times I can’t bear to articulate it. Why should we go on, you might ask? Why don’t we all just stop and lie down where we are? But there is another truth, too. People live. It’s an equal and opposing truth. People live, and in the most remarkable ways. When I was sick, I saw more beauty and triumph and truth in a single day than I ever did in a bike race—but they were human moments, not miraculous ones. I met a guy in a fraying sweatsuit who turned out to be a brilliant surgeon. I became friends with a harassed and overscheduled nurse named LaTrice, who gave me such care that it could only be the result of the deepest sympathetic affinity. I saw children with no eyelashes or eyebrows, their hair burned away by chemo, who fought with the hearts of Indurains.
I still don’t completely understand it.
All I can do is tell you what happened.
Of course I should have known that something was wrong with me. But athletes, especially cyclists, are in the business of denial. You deny all the aches and pains because you have to in order to finish the race. It’s a sport of self-abuse. You’re on your bike for the whole day, six and seven hours, in all kinds of weather and conditions, over cobblestones and gravel, in mud and wind and rain, and even hail, and you do not give in to pain.
Everything hurts. Your back hurts, your feet hurt, your hands hurt, your neck hurts, your legs h...