Dan Mac Alpine: This news was a real dope slap
Oh, dopey me.
I admit it. Lance Armstrong, recently stripped of his seven straight Tour de France titles and an Olympic bronze medal for doping, was a hero. Despite his unprecedented domination of a sport dominated by dopers and cheaters, I believed in Lance’s doping denials. Or more accurately, I wanted to believe.
Because I am a testicular cancer survivor. Some 20 years ago I went into my doctor’s office for a checkup. I’d completely forgotten about the excruciatingly tender lump in my left testicle. He found it quickly enough in a standard physical exam, bringing me to my knees in a stab of white-light pain. He was on the phone to the urologist next door before I could buckle my belt. And the urologist was on the phone to the hospital scheduling surgery for the next day before I finished dressing, scarcely an hour after my initial exam.
“No, no. You don’t understand. This has to be done right away,” I heard the urologist saying through the open door that separated his office from his examining room.
And along came Lance, fellow testicular cancer survivor, giving a face to a disease I’d never known existed before I had it.
It wasn’t just Lance’s athletic ability, his fierce competitive spirit or his courage and skill as a cyclist that hooked me. Here was a guy willing to come forward and be a poster boy for a then largely unspoken disease. A very curable disease if caught in time — the National Cancer Institute says the five-year survival rate for localized testicular cancer is now 99 percent, 96 percent for regional cases and 72 percent for distant cases. Lance was willing to expose himself personally to warn others and save lives. His Livestrong Foundation — think the yellow wristbands — has raised some $500 million for cancer research.
I believed Lance was clean not because he’d passed hundreds of drug tests, although that helped, but because of one thing he said, and I paraphrase: “I survived cancer. Why would I put anything in my body that would put me at that kind of risk again?”
Having spent hours vomiting following treatments; having been told my oldest daughter, 5 at the time, spent the day I went into surgery at her daycare with a teddy bear, pretending to cut him open and stitch him back up and make him “better”; having pondered what I might say in videos I would leave behind to my two girls in case I wasn’t there to watch them grow up — a tape for the onset of their menses, a tape for their proms, a tape for their weddings, a tape for high school graduation, one for college graduation, a tape for the birth of their first children, I couldn’t believe anyone would risk a repeat of cancer after having been given the gift of survival.
So I watched as much of Lance’s Tour victories as I could. I remember him being run off the road coming down a mountain, heading straight down, through the rough grass and joining up with the road as it switched back again. I remember him leaving Jan Ulrich gasping on a final climb so steep it goes beyond the category five-climb classification for the most difficult climbs in the Tour. I cheered. I stood up, my spine tingling as Lance pumped to yet another victory. Take that you snobby French people, you!
And Lance was doing it clean. Surely he wouldn’t risk triggering some latent, hidden cancer cell camping out in what was left of his lymph system by doping. Surely he wouldn’t be so two-faced as to start a cancer foundation, all the while doping.
So I imagined myself pounding the Cul de Whatever on my own bike rides, just like Lance. “Oh, and Dan is making his move now! You can see the suffering on his face. His legs must be screaming! But he’s simply crushing his nearest competition and likely ensuring yet another Tour victory!” On days I didn’t feel like running, I asked myself, “What would Lance do?” I bought the yellow Livestrong wristbands. I gave one to my former boss to wear while she was undergoing breast cancer treatment.
And now? Now?
Lance still denies doping. Maybe he’s telling the truth. But the facts don’t stack that way. He’s given up his court battle against the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. The agency has close to a dozen former teammates ready to testify Lance doped. The doping agency says it has blood test markers from Lance consistent with doping.
I’d like to believe Lance. I want to believe Lance. But I can’t believe Lance anymore. I can only be a dope for so long.
Dan Mac Alpine is editor of the Ipswich (Mass.) Chronicle and the Hamilton-Wenham (Mass.) Chronicle.