Lance Armstrong has lost all of his major sponsors. / Jaime Reina, AFP/Getty Images
Cyclist Lance Armstrong, who has been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, once famously wrote, "It's not about the bike." Now, in spite of mountains of evidence that Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs, many supporters of his Livestrong foundation say "it's not about Lance."
Even as officials at the International Cycling Union declare that Armstrong no longer has a place in their sport, many survivors say he retains a place in their hearts, not just for raising money, but for raising the profile of cancer survivors and addressing their long-neglected needs.
"Livestrong may have been started by Lance, but the foundation is bigger than its founder," says cyclist and longtime Livestrong volunteer Erik Pearson, 41, of Aurora, Colo., who says he will continue to wear the famous yellow wristbands. "Livestrong is not Armstrong."
The 15-year-old foundation has helped 2.5 million people over the years and raised nearly $500 million. Many cancer survivors predict the foundation will continue well without Armstrong, who stepped down last week as chairman but says he will remain involved.
Donations have doubled since Aug. 23, when Armstrong announced he would no longer contest doping charges, Livestrong spokeswoman Katherine McLane said Tuesday. Much of those donations are related to Livestrong's 15th anniversary fundraiser. Total fundraising for the year is up 13% from last year, to nearly $21 million. Only three people in recent weeks have asked for their money back because of the doping charges, McLane said.
Brian Rose, who was uninsured when he was diagnosed with advanced melanoma three years ago, says he owes his health to Livestrong. "It's overwhelming trying to do it all on your own," says Rose, 34, who notes that Livestrong's cancer navigation program helped him get health insurance. "Having a resource like that is priceless."
Lymphoma survivor Jen Singer, 45, credits Armstrong with championing cancer "survivorship," or the needs of patients after finishing treatment. Armstrong, who has served on the President's Cancer Panel, has drawn attention to patients' life-long needs, from employment to the "late effects" of toxic cancer therapies, which can cause heart failure, infertility and even second cancers.
Rose and other survivors praise the leadership of Doug Ulman, Livestrong's president and CEO. Ulman, a three-time cancer survivor, founded his own cancer charity, the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults, in 1997, before joining Livestrong.
Rose says he's a living example of what Livestrong does every day. Livestrong helped arrange free flights for Rose to a Houston hospital from Wichita, where he works half the year as a minor-league baseball coach. Livestrong helped Rose with fertility counseling and sperm banking, so that he and his wife can try to have children one day. Lastly, Livestrong intervened when Rose's insurance company refused to allow him to join a clinical trial. The insurance company reversed its decision and is now covering the cost of the trial, which involves cutting-edge but experimental immune therapy, Rose says.
"It's literally giving a guy like me a chance to walk away from this disease," says Rose, who also appeared in a video for Livestrong. "I just know that when I need it, the foundation will be there."
Requests for help from the foundation's navigation service have actually increased with the latest news about Armstrong, says Livestrong social worker Athan Schindler.
Some cancer survivors say they are saddened by Armstrong's fall from grace. Singer says she doesn't know how to explain the doping charges to her children.
Others, such as Rebecca Esparza, are less concerned. "It doesn't matter to me if he's guilty or not. He's done more to change 'the face of cancer' than anyone else, ever," says Esparza, of Corpus Christi, Texas. "Livestrong was the first organization I heard of that coined the phrase 'young-adult survivor,' which was in 2001, when I was diagnosed at age 30 with ovarian cancer. Livestrong made other cancer organizations sit up and take notice, revamp and refocus the way they looked at cancer survivorship as a whole."
Breast cancer survivor Lani Horn, 41, says "many great heroes are flawed. We may all come to believe that Lance's competitive edge and desire to do the improbable went awry in this instance. However, it was exactly those qualities that helped him think so big and bold with Livestrong."
"It's heartbreaking, but everybody is human," Singer says. "The cancer community will be forever indebted to him for what he has done for us."
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