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No cheater's 'free pass' for Lance Armstrong just because he beat cancer

Craig Medred

My old man was quick as hell with a shotgun, and I hated it. He made a mockery of a good part of my youth. Youth is supposed to be about vitality. My cancer-ridden old man shot that idea to death a lifetime ago in the fields of Minnesota. I grew up there shooting pheasants or, more accurately, wanting to shoot pheasants. The hunting went like this:

The Brittany Spaniel would lock up on point. My old man would say, "Why don't you take this one?'' I'd step in on the bird. A rooster would come cackling out of the grass. I'd whip up my shotgun, be drawing a bead on the disappearing pheasant, and "ka-boom!'' Feathers would fly, and the rooster would tumble to the ground. After which, I'd turn around to look at my old man, who would announce: "Sorry. Couldn't wait forever. It looked like he was going to get out of range.''

As soon as I graduated from high school, I moved out of the house. Not that long after, I lit out for Alaska. The excuse was traffic jam tens of miles long on U.S. Highway 10 coming out of Minneapolis on the opening day of fishing season. I was, at the time, a student at the University of Minnesota. Opening days for anything you could shoot or catch were always looney in Minnesota. People tell me now it's that way for the opening days of Walmarts and malls. Back in the 1970s, though, it was for hunting and fishing seasons.

I wanted to get away to a land with readily accessible wilderness. Alaska provided that and still does, but that's a subject for other writings. This is about my old man.

Quick and tough

He was quick as hell, even after the cancer got him. And he was tough. The doctors cut out most of his liver, part of his intestine, and God only knows what else in order to remove a huge tumor from his abdomen. It was a great diet. He went into the surgery looking like a football player and emerged looking like a bike racer. The physical changes didn't slow him down any. He had to eat all the time to maintain energy, but he went on shooting as well as ever as a cancer survivor.

And then he became a cancer victim.

Cancer is like that. It haunts people. You can get almost free only to have it come sneaking back. I have too many dead friends who lived that nightmare and, of course, my old man. If anyone was going to beat cancer just because they were tough, he was the one, and he couldn't beat it. Given this, I'm about as fed up as one can get with the apologists for seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, who these days seem to believe Armstrong should be given some sort of pass on doping his way to victory because he beat cancer.

Nobody beats cancer.

Nobody.

Placebo effect

Doctors wage war on cancer, and patients get lucky and survive, or unlucky and die. Medicine has learned a lot about cancer in the last 50 years, but there remains a lot we don't know. There are various cancers for which the treatment now provides high odds of survival. There are other cancers for which it is the opposite. There is no doubt that a positive attitude on the part of a patient helps going into battle -- as does physical fitness. Those things are well documented.

The human brain is a strange and interesting organism. We don't really understand a lot of its workings. Medicine can document the power of the placebo effect, but not how it works. "There are various theories that attempt to explain this phenomenon but the underlying mechanisms remain mysterious,'' one medical website notes. What we know about the placebo effect is that it is a powerful, subconscious reaction.

The placebo effect may well have allowed someone, somewhere to beat cancer. Lord knows the placebo effect has been credited with overcoming all sorts of other ailments. But beating pain or disease or discomfort with the placebo effect is not beating it all, because it is a subconscious reaction that might kick in or might not. One cannot will the placebo effect; you can only hope for it. You can only hope to get lucky.

Armstrong got lucky in whatever way he got lucky. Maybe it was the placebo effect in part. Maybe it was solely the surgery and meds provided by some first-class medical professionals. Maybe it was divine intervention. None of us will ever know, but suffice to say he did not beat cancer because of his strong will. His physical fitness, indeed, might have helped him to emerge from the dark side as a cancer survivor, but that didn't allow him to beat cancer either.

Will power?

Armstrong got lucky. My old man got unlucky.

Hundreds of thousands of cancer patients get unlucky every year. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in this country. More than half a million people will die of the disease before 2012 is over. And it is an insult to every one of them and their families to believe Armstrong beat cancer, because this misguided belief suggests that all the others are dead because they just weren't tough enough to beat cancer. It suggests they just didn't have the will power.

Oh, if only they'd been as tough as Lance.

That is a crock of bullshit. I know a couple dead women who were among the psychologically toughest people I've ever met. It didn't help them. The cancer killed them anyway. The cancer didn't care how tough they were, just as it didn't care a bit about Armstrong's toughness.

Armstrong is a lucky survivor. He is also, without doubt, a smart guy. It wasn't just his body that helped him win seven yellow jerseys. It was his brain, too. And given his intelligence, it isn't hard to believe that early on he could see what was coming if he lived. Everyone in cycling was doping in the 1990s. The evidence is overwhelming. And everyone was destined to get caught. History invariably catches up. History will not allow conspiracies of this size to remain buried forever.

Ullrich, Patini, Zulle, Verinque, Hamilton, Landis ....   the list of those caught doping goes on and on. Old Armstrong teammate Jonathon Vaughters never got caught, but he is among those who have since emerged from the doping closet. This week, Vaughters outed three other Armstrong teammates who now work for him on the cycling team Garmin-Sharp. Forget the U.S. Anti-Drug Administration declaring Armstrong a doper, and his choosing to accept the penalties for doping instead of fighting the accusation.

Just take a look at what's out there. Read "The Secret Race,'' the book by a guy from Homer, Daniel Coyle, and former Armstrong teammate Tyler Hamilton. The evidence is overwhelming. Armstrong doped, and then he duped.

There are whole bunch of people in this country seeking to defend his cheating because he beat cancer and then he set up a foundation, albeit a self-serving one, to further the fight against cancer. If Livestrong has helped advance the battle against this disease one millimeter, that is a good thing. If Livestrong has helped one victim of cancer survive, that is a good thing. But no one should deceive themselves.

Masterful PR move

Armstrong did not create Livestrong purely out of the goodness of his heart. There is a symbiotic relationship here. Livestrong was a masterful PR move. It made Armstrong more than just a bike racer and a cancer survivor. It crowned him as a holy warrior in the battle against one of the most dreaded diseases in the country, and because he wears that crown a whole lot of people want to cut him slack on his cheating or, worst of all, believe his persistent lie that he never doped.

He never tested positive, he says. I never tested positive, either. Neither did Bjarne Riis, the 1996 Tour champ. Armstrong seems to have taken a page from the Riis handbook. It was Riis who first made the claim "I have never tested positive." He persisted with that claim right up until the day he admitted he doped his way to victory.

As a fan of cycling, these guys have had me thinking a lot about my old man lately. Along with being tough and unable to beat cancer, he was brutally honest. He believed that telling the truth was one of a man's great virtues. I don't know what he would have thought of this whole Armstrong mess, but I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have been good. He never liked cheats, but he liked liars even less. Most of all, he detested liars and cheats who tried to hide their misbehavior behind "good works."

Maybe it had something to do with being raised Catholic, a religion he forcefully rejected early on. He was long dead before the dark side of the church began to emerge, before the pedophiles who hid behind their good works were outed. Their good works, thankfully, didn't protect them -- and shouldn't. Neither should any good works of Armstrong. It's time for the Texan to pay the piper. It's time for Ole Lance to man-up and admit he stuck needles in his veins to gain an edge. It's time for him to come clean about better living through chemistry because his life has been about little else.

He lived thanks to chemistry, and he won those Tour victories thanks to chemistry.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com