The television interviewers were stacked up on the satellite feed like so many planes above La Guardia on a stormy day. The producer from NY1 in New York was still signing off as the reporter from KTBC in Austin started asking Lance Armstrong questions, as the producer from KCBS Sports Central in Los Angeles was making sure he would have Armstrong on in eight minutes, as Diana Nyad of Fox Sports News waited, followed by Jim Rome of The Last Word, followed by.... "I feel almost guilty doing this to him," said Mike Leventhal, a producer for Bader TV News, where Armstrong sat for the interviews. "I usually space things out, give somebody a rest between interviews—just 30 seconds to have a drink of water or something—but there just isn't time."
No matter. This was what Armstrong wanted to do during his 21-hour visit to the U.S. last Thursday. He sat in front of TV cameras most of the day and told his story again and again. He had begun his rounds on CBS This Morning at 5:45 a.m., having arrived in the wee hours from Holland aboard an executive jet chartered by Nike. He would end the interviews at nine in the evening on David Letterman's couch, as a limo waited outside the studio to take him back to the jet, which would take him back to Holland.
This was Armstrong's opportunity for public conversation. He would make people laugh. He would make more people cry. He would blanket the country as best he could, talk to everyone—anyone—taking advantage of the moment before the expiration date arrived, before the easily distracted public eye moved to some other grand feat or terrible disaster, some other curiosity.
He was the man who had won the Tour de France. He was the man who had kicked cancer's ass, choosing riskier, more agonizing therapies so he could protect his future as a cyclist even while his life hung in the balance. And he had a message to deliver. This was his moment to speak, and he would not let it go. "If I can save five lives by going on some show, it's worth it," he said. "If I can save one life by going on all the shows, it's worth it. I'm prouder of being a cancer survivor than I am of winning the Tour de France. Believe me."
His story is a modern parable of hope. How many people have heard the word cancer in a doctor's office and felt a chill? How many people are going through chemotherapy or radiation, sitting at home, wondering what will happen tomorrow and the tomorrow after that? Armstrong is one of them, part of this multitude of the damned. He always will be. "I'm aware of the cancer community wherever I go," he says. "I could feel it at the Tour. People would come up to me before races or after races. I could feel it during the races. It's a community of shared experience. If you've ever belonged, you never leave."
On Oct. 2, 1996, Armstrong's doctor told him he had testicular cancer. Armstrong was 25 years old, the best bicycle rider in the U.S., a former world champion—confident, abrasive. He'd never thought about cancer. Not once. The uncomfortable bump on one testicle certainly was somehow the result of cycling, he told himself. The blood that he spit up, well, that only happened once. The diagnosis was a shock. "I thought the same thing everybody thinks when he hears the word cancer" Armstrong says. "I thought, Oh my god, I am going to die."
He not only had cancer; he had an advanced case. The removal of a testicle on Oct. 3 was only the start. A few days later he was told that the cancer had spread to his lungs, which were rife with tumors. A short time after that he was told that the cancer had spread to his brain.
After the surgery in Austin, he went on the Internet, punched in the words testicular cancer and was surprised at how much information the search engine brought home. He consulted with other doctors. He eventually landed in Indianapolis, at the Indiana University Medical Center, being treated by medical oncologists Lawrence Einhorn and Craig Nichols, the U.S.'s top testicular cancer specialists.
If Armstrong had arrived at a doctor's office in this condition 25 years ago, he almost certainly would have died. Brian Piccolo, the Chicago Bears running back whose story was chronicled in the movie Brian's Song, died of testicular cancer in 1970. Armstrong's chances were much better now due mainly to the work of Einhorn, who had perfected a chemo treatment that had greatly reduced deaths, but he was still in trouble. "The chemo works or it doesn't work," Einhorn says. "If it works, the patient will live a normal, cancer-free life. If it doesn't and the cancer comes back, he usually will be dead three to four months later.
"I didn't know who Lance Armstrong was. It's funny, too, because I really follow sports. Football, baseball, basketball. I just didn't know anything about cycling. I thought, O.K., a cyclist. I've had athletes before—testicular cancer is a disease that strikes young men. Then I started receiving these calls and E-mails from oncologists around the country, around the world. I realized this was someone special."