Drugs, Disease And The Demise Of Heroes

Lance Armstrong


No cycling blog would be complete without some mention, and ideally an analysis, of the recent downfall of bicycling legend Lance Armstrong. According to the latest reports, he participated in a conspiracy, along with his teammates, trainers, and team doctors, to engage in illegal doping and to cover it up.

Over the last few days, this topic has been discussed in cycling circles and among members of the general public. After all of the doping allegations against him over the years, most people weren’t surprised by the ending of this saga. It was pretty likely that Lance was doping. But the magnitude of the offense, with respect to the number of people involved, was probably greater than anyone not directly involved thought.

Aside from the obvious wrongs entailed in cheating to win and lying to cover one’s tracks, there are other troubling implications in this situation. Lance Armstrong was many things. He was a world class athlete, a champion, a brand, a cancer survivor, and the founder of an organization whose mission is to improve the lives of cancer patients. In other words, he was different things to different people. Yet, in a way, none of those things were entirely true. They were an illusion.

It’s true that he did all of the things he is known for. He was a champion cyclist. But did he really win? He was a cancer survivor. But have his actions actually been consistent with the image of hope he has given millions of cancer patients worldwide?

None of us will ever know the authentic Lance Armstrong. His greatest achievements were attained through masterful manipulation. The public believed all of it because the story was larger than life and the man himself lived as the legend we all dreamed a hero would be.

It couldn’t last forever. All fairytales come to an end. And this one came down with a resounding crash.

Lance’s sponsors abandoned him one by one. His disgrace was to be his alone. For either good or for self-preservation he stepped down as the chairman of the cancer foundation he started in 1997. He could no longer be a role model for either aspiring athletes or cancer patients because his name had been tainted with fraudulent actions. No one could trust him anymore.

As the story unfolded, online comment sections were filled with vitriol towards Lance. Among the common themes were accusations of having used his cancer as a cover for getting away with doping. Some commenters went so far as to say that his doping had caused his cancer. While their intention was to admonish him, spreading such beliefs is not only harmful to Lance, but also to all cancer patients.

It’s not uncommon for people to blame cancer patients for causing their own cancer. The Internet abounds with stories of how people either avoided getting cancer or cured themselves of cancer by eating properly and living a healthy lifestyle. While these things do reduce one’s risk of developing cancer, by themselves they do not prevent cancer. Cancer is a very complex disease, or more accurately, hundreds of diseases with a variety of causes, many of which are out of our control.

How ironic that a man who chose to do so much to benefit cancer patients — in the form of a creating a foundation intended to better their lives — also managed to cause them so much harm. For years he formally played the role of cancer survivor. This high profile survivor made many cancer patients believe that they could not only return to their former lives after cancer treatments, but that they could push their bodies to the limit, as if they had never had a disease at all.

Cancer patients and their families and friends attributed Lance’s athletic success to hard work and healthy living. The hard work part was true, but not the healthy living part. Even though his cancer went into remission, and he returned to good health, his return to training must have also included the use of Performance Enhancing Drugs (PED). This fact is a mixed blessing for cancer patients.

On one hand, it makes them feel less like failures if they cannot come back to the extent he did. But on the other hand, it reduces their hope about what they can accomplish physically after cancer treatment. So the downfall of this hero is also a letdown to the people who needed him most.

Speaking of healthy living, can we consider doping a healthy lifestyle? The research says “no.” Doping has proven to be quite harmful to one’s health.

Of primary concern is the use of anabolic steroids. In addition to other PEDs, Lance and his teammates were using steroids. According to a research paper, Androgen Abuse in Athletes: Detection and Consequences, written by Shehzad Basaria M.D. of the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism at the Boston University School of Medicine:

“Numerous reports are now available linking the adverse effects of AAS (anabolic androgenic steroids) on each body system and its relationship to premature mortality. Before the introduction of AAS in elite sports, endurance athletes not only experienced decreased risk of diabetes, ischemic heart disease, and hypertension, but also had reduced mortality from cardiovascular disease compared with the rest of the population ( 75 , 76 ). Furthermore, their life expectancy was similar to the control population. The advent of AAS abuse among athletes has changed these dynamics. A Finnish study evaluated 62 male power athletes who had used AAS and compared their mortality over 12 yr to an age-matched control population ( 77 ). The authors found that the athletes experienced almost five times higher mortality compared with the controls. Death due to cardiovascular disease was one of the most common causes of this increased mortality.”

Is this a risk worth taking, especially in light of the following statement?

“Because androgens improve maximal voluntary muscle strength, it is understandable that a high rate of androgen use is seen among weight lifters and other power athletes. However, the use of androgens in endurance events, e.g. bicycling, is not based on scientific evidence because androgens have not been shown to improve whole body endurance ( 20 , 21 ).”

While most elite athletes are healthy, Lance Armstrong was afflicted with a serious, potentially life threatening disease, from which he has recovered. Having been given a second chance at life and good health, one would think that Lance would take good care of his body. This is what the vast majority of cancer survivors do. So why didn’t Lance do the same?

I would not want to wish bad luck on him, but for the sake of other cancer survivors it should be mentioned that aside from the risk of dying of heart disease, doping may not be good for cancer survivors. Even when cancer goes into remission, it is not uncommon for cancer cells to remain in the body. These cells are dormant.

Sometimes, after many years, these cancer cells become active again, although no one knows why. For this reason alone, cancer survivors should strive to live a healthy lifestyle.

Of the illegal substances Lance used, two have the potential to aggravate cancer (although they are not known to cause cancer in someone who doesn’t already have it). High does of steroids used over a long period of time can weaken the immune system. The immune system is the body’s first line of defense against cancer.

Human growth hormone (hGH), which Lance also used, is known to increase glucose levels. Cancer cells thrive on glucose. In fact, they utilize much more glucose (which provides their energy) than healthy cells. This (along with other growth factor traits) may be a reason why hGH is believed to contribute to the growth of cancerous tumors.

What kind of person beats a life threatening disease only to abuse his body for the sake of winning? Is winning more important than good health? Is it more important than being alive?

Fraud comes in many forms. Still, fraud is never more disappointing than when it wears the mask of a hero. If nothing else, perhaps the myth of Lance Armstrong will inspire others to be what he pretended to be — champions and legitimate, long-term survivors of a life threatening disease.

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