Early this morning my smartphone was bouncing on the table bearing the messages that Lance Armstrong had resigned as chairman of the Livestrong Foundation and that his prime sponsor Nike had dropped him for doping. “Nike does not condone the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs in any manner,” read the statement. I reflexively pulled on my yellow Livestrong band and left for work to write these words.
I have worn a Livestrong band every day of my life since I was diagnosed with cancer in 2003. I can’t foresee not wearing it, or not making donations to Livestrong. Lance once wrote a book called It’s Not About the Bike; Livestrong should no longer be about Lance. But it should be allowed to live, and to thrive.
Livestrong is about hope. And as anyone who has ever been given that terrible diagnosis knows, people who have cancer need to have hope. Desperately. For me, the yellow band symbolized it in ways I couldn’t quite fathom, but the attraction was instant. It connected me to the more than one million Americans who would get cancer that year, and every year since. Livestrong was relatively new at the time, and the yellow band—along with the pink ribbon of Susan G. Komen for the Cure— was just generating momentum.
The world of cancer and cancer research absolutely needed a kick in the ass and Lance give it one. He became cancer policy’s domestique, pulling it up the mountains of indifference that had made cancer somewhat invisible to policymakers, refusing to accept that enough was being done to cure, or at least curtail, a disease that will kill 477,000 Americans this year. He applied the same competitive fervor he did on the Tour—yes, the kind that got him into trouble—to badger everyone from the Presidents to philanthropists to spend more money for cancer research. Livestrong organized fundraising drives that assembled thousands of people for bike rides, runs and walks—survivors, patients, and relatives of cancer victims— that were both moving and motivating. And Livestrong became a center of information and support. More recently, Livestrong opened a navigation center in Austin that helps guide people through the cancer bureaucracy, and the tough choices that they must make. It’s a model being replicated across the country. (Livestrong has its critics, too, as well itshould. So does the American Cancer Society. We need to hold all charities to the highest standards.)
But Livestrong has made a valuable contribution. I’ve spent the last week or so with some of the nation’s leading cancer researchers, including members of the so called Dream Teams funded by Stand Up 2 Cancer, one of the new organizations that have arisen in the Armstrong era to take a more deliberate approach to cancer research. The focus is simple: produce cures, not papers, and do it today, not in a decade. These scientists are juiced (oops, bad word choice): they have never been more convinced that we are on the precipice of some breakthroughs. People are going to be alive in five years because of the advocacy of organizations like Livestrong and SU2C in driving the development of these future therapies.
Clearly, there is much more work to be done. Cancer will soon become the nation’s leading killer, because it is increasingly a disease of the old. Still, the National Institute of Health faces an 8% budget cut next year if the current sequestration rules take effect. Yet every two days cancer kills more people than were lost in the 9/11 attack. It’s been people such as Armstrong and organizations like Livestrong that have been taking the fight to cancer, even if our legislators won’t. That’s why Nike will continue to support Livestrong, but not Armstrong. So condemn Lance as a cheat; but don’t condemn Livestrong, as some idiot sportswriters seem to be doing. The only thing we need to cheat here is cancer.