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My Interview with Lance Armstrong

21 January 2009

Lance Armstrong and Karen Cheng

When I agreed to interview Lance Armstrong, I wanted to advise his Lance Armstrong Foundation of a few things.

Firstly, I’m not a professional journalist. Also, neither I nor my readers are particularly interested in the technicalities of cycling or professional racing! But I am very interested in doing something about cancer awareness.

Basically, I wanted to ask Lance questions that were from the heart – issues that were perhaps a bit more thought provoking regarding cancer, personal strength, fundraising, and cancer awareness.

Lance Armstrong is one of the world’s most successful cycling champions, who has used his fame to create LIVESTRONG – a movement to raise funds and awareness for cancer research. It has an incredible online resource for people who are dealing with cancer and its effects – both for the actual person who has it, but also for the people who love them.

When I finally met Lance, it was late in the afternoon. He had spent the morning riding up and down several nearby mountains as training for the big race in a few days. He was very relaxed, and radiated a very charismatic energy. We chatted about Adelaide, the hills, Perth, being pregnant, and he seemed really nice and easy-going. And then I asked my questions.

Karen: You’ve been quoted as saying that you would never have won the Tour De France if you hadn’t had cancer. Can you say why that is? Was it just that winning a bike race (even the toughest one in the world) seems easy compared to beating cancer?

It doesn’t have to be cancer, it could be anything devastating that reminds you of the fragility of life, the fragility of your career, and of your potential.

I had a decent perspective on my sport before, but after the diagnosis and the treatment, I realised that cycling was truly special to me personally, so I redoubled, recommitted myself back to cycling in a much different way than I did before.

Karen: Your media persona makes you seem like a very tough, direct, forceful guy, and winning the Tour de France so many times tells us you have a lot of self-discipline. But what was your lowest emotional moment with cancer. And how did you get out of it?

Lance: The lowest moment…hmm…yeh, that’s a good question. It would be hard to compete, in terms of the lows, with the actual diagnosis, because that was such a surprise. This fear rushes in, and uncertainty rushes in, and the immediate thought or question is “am I going to die?”. That’s a natural reaction.

After that, I kept getting more and more bad news, but it didn’t compare to the initial diagnosis. The way you deal with that, at least I did, and I think most people do, is through friends and family, this strong support structure that ultimately lift you up.

But also, I put a lot of faith in my doctors and nurses. I realised I was going to find the best doctor in the world, and the best medical team in the world, and we were going to throw everything at this disease, and if it didn’t work out…it wasn’t meant to be.

Karen: At what point did you realise you were going to do something as big about cancer as LIVESTRONG. Was there a single moment where you realised you should, and could?

Lance: No, this all started around a little table in a restaurant, just talking to friends, thinking we should do something to raise a little bit of money. LIVESTRONG wasn’t even in existence at that time, it was just the Lance Armstrong Foundation. LIVESTRONG came about in 2003/2004.

Karen: It must be a huge undertaking, organisationally, to get something a big as your foundation and LIVESTRONG rolling. How do you start something like that?

Lance: The same way we got through the low points of the cancer itself. Friends and family and myself sat around and said “we gotta do something”.

So the very same people who helped me through the tough times, the low points of the diagnosis and treatment, were the same ones who were there to start the foundation.

Karen: I know that cancer research is enormously complicated, and expensive, so fundraising is very important. I also know that most people feel like there is nothing they can do about cancer, because the size of the problem is so big.

What proportion of funds raised by your foundation comes from small donations like 5 and 10 dollars, as opposed to big benefactors? How important is it for ordinary people to give a little?

Lance: A lot, a lot. I would say that the bulk of the money we have raised, going way back to the beginning, is from small amounts. If you go way back to the beginning, and consider that we have raised more than 300 million dollars, the biggest single component of that was from the sale of the yellow wrist bands, which was 60 or 70 million dollars, which is a lot of money. But all of that was people spending one dollar for a yellow wrist band.

So 70 million people gave us a buck. They said – “here you go, here’s a dollar.” So that built a brand, and a movement.

There is a lot of five dollar, ten dollar, and even twenty two dollars and thirty six cents kind of donations, which to me is really cool, I rather have a lot of that, because that represents a movement, an army of people, whereas if you had ten rich people giving you a bunch of money, you couldn’t say that you speak for an entire constituency of people.

Karen: I get really discouraged when I get hate mail – and it happened to me right after my first little fundraiser for the Red Cross. How do you deal with the detractors who question your motives, especially when you have such a public persona?

Lance: Anyone who is in the public eye who has a measure of success will have detractors, will have naysayers, will have non-believers, will have haters. And that has been amplified now, in the current generation, because there is so much output in terms of the media, like magazines, blogs, message boards. Anybody who goes onto a message board and reads about themselves is going to go crazy.

I told someone the other day, I thought that Tina Faye summed it up best when she accepted her award at the Golden Globes, she said “For all of you out there who are just starting to feel good about yourself, there is this little thing out there called the Internet.” And then she listed off the names of people who’ve said bad things about her on the net, and then at the end of it all, she thanked her husband.

At the end of the day, it helps to ignore it, but also if you want to, you could also say some mean things back. (laughs)

Karen: An obvious possibility with having cancer is that it might come back. I know my husband gets very tense while waiting for the results of every blood test. How do you deal with the fear of recurrence?

Lance: I think that fades over time. My big ones were one month, two months, three months, every month in that first year. One year was a big deal, two years was a big deal, and then five years was just a huge deal. And really, I don’t think that much about it, so when I go in for my annual check-up twelve years later, I don’t know, maybe it’s a bad thing, I don’t get that nervous.

But in the first year, or two years, I was just a ball of nerves. I think that’s totally normal.

Karen: My husband has had testicular cancer twice, and he says it was a very different emotional experience second time around. How do you think you will deal with it differently if your cancer comes back?

Lance: Oh my god, I can’t even imagine. Hopefuly that won’t even happen, but it certainly can.

It’s hard to say. It’s like if you’re totally healthy and someone says how would you deal with that the first time, you can’t respond to that.

I know that just like before, we would work hard to find the best options, go into it with the best attitude, and throw everything at it. It would be different now, because I have kids.

The first time, I was a twenty five year old kid, and if I left, the only one who would be really sad was my Mom, but it’s a lot different now. I don’t even like to think about it.

Karen: Twenty years from now, would you rather be famous for being the world’s greatest bike athlete, or for creating LIVESTRONG?

Lance: Even today, I’d rather be known as the founder of LIVESTRONG, and so obviously, 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years from now, till we don’t need to do it anymore, the same would apply. If I could pick what goes on my tombstone, LIVESTRONG would be higher than athlete.

Karen: It’s safe to say that your story, both in sport and with cancer, has inspired lots of people. But who inspires you?

Lance: My Mom. She’s always been a hero in life, and a hero in the example she set for me. She’s a tough woman who believed in a certain set of things when she was young, and had an incredible work ethic and drive and motivation. Even today, she 55 years old, and still a young lady, and we are very, very close and great friends.

We ended my interview, and then it was his turn to ask me questions.

I told him my husband’s story, how it affected me and our family. And shared some thoughts about cancer awareness in Australia, and what Australians can do to spread awareness of cancer and help activate communities.

Overall, I was really impressed with Lance’s answers, and the way he answered them. Directly, strongly, confidently, with real interest and passion.

I was struck by how similar his views on his cancer are to my husband’s, and how he freely admits, like my husband, that it was his family and friends who got him through his cancer.

A few days after meeting Lance, I had lots of thoughts. I feel that my own plans to do something to raise awareness of the need for improved cancer prevention and treatment are probably not ambitious enough!

After all, Lance Armstrong is just one person, and although he has had a lot of help, he has been the one individual who was the focus of it all. So one person can make a huge difference! I’m inspired!