As he bared his flawed soul to Oprah, Lance Armstrong did one more service for people with cancer. He proved that jerks get the disease too. He even blamed cancer for turning him into a bully. This may be the only side effect of cancer treatment I haven’t experienced.
I’ve had cancer twice. Although I’ve been on the receiving end of enormous kindness, I’ve always felt uncomfortable when people tried to declare me a saint simply because I was sick. You’re so brave. You’re my hero.
I am neither brave nor particularly virtuous. My husband has to deal with mice in the kitchen, because they petrify me. I gossip. I forget to recycle, or simply don’t bother. The Courant won’t allow me space to recount all my faults. But I have one redeeming quality: I’m a stickler for truth.
That’s why I refuse to be turned into an “ABC Afterschool Special.” Heroes run into burning buildings to save people. In my case, the building I live in keeps catching fire. Nothing heroic about that. Just plain old bad luck. Bad luck doesn’t make for much of a story, though, which brings me back to Lance Armstrong.
Embodying the myth
He became the embodiment of what I call cancer mythology. There’s this idea that living with the disease is a noble struggle. We patients become the stuff of legends, kind of like Manti Te’o’s girlfriend.
When he was diagnosed, Lance Armstrong went from being a guy who can pedal a bicycle really fast to an inspiring figure. Cancer became part of his brand, bolstering his celebrity and his marketing power. In some ways — and I can get away with this because I’m a “hero” too — cancer was very good to Lance Armstrong.
And he was very good to cancer. The Livestrong Foundation drew its strength from cancer mythology as surely as Armstrong drew his from doping. Most charities that raise funds for cancer treatment and research do. I’m grateful for their work, though their marketing brings on that queasy feeling that’s such a big part of my life.
Cancer research has helped me. The chemo drugs and surgery I received my second time around didn’t even exist when I was treated for my first cancer. Breast cancer is such a cause celebre that the government mandates insurers pay for reconstruction, which made a double mastectomy less horrible to contemplate. That level of coverage simply doesn’t exist in other diseases, though it should.
Even as I benefit from them, I cannot stand the choreographed pink ribbon events. Can you imagine any other disease wrapped in so much awe and positivity? Woohoo, Dengue fever! Cancer is singular among all diseases. It’s a trial, a quest, a perilous journey that only the brave and pure are called upon to make.
In fairness to Armstrong, he didn’t appoint himself the knight errant of cancer. That took care of itself. The only thing ESPN finds more irresistible than a child fan with cancer is an athlete with cancer. Armstrong was going to be a hero whether he wanted to be or not. Now he’s reviled because his bad behavior makes us question our own mythology.
If there is any way that cancer ennobles, it’s that it makes you work so hard to get your life back. My surgery was a year ago. Yesterday in the shower, I noticed something poking out of my chest. I pulled out a stitch that had worked its way to the surface after all this time. I’m calling it a sign. I can hold myself together without any help now.
It’s hard. Chemo takes forever to leave your system. I’m still shaving my legs only once a month, cancer’s one upside. The chemo brain that made me forget times and dates during treatment hasn’t totally left me. My first editor dubbed me Colleen the Copy Machine. Now the machine is stuck in second gear. I take a longer time to write. For a freelancer, speed is money.
If I could pop some magical pill and get my groove back, I would — but I would not lie about it. At least, I hope not. Who knows? Like Lance Armstrong, I’m only human.
Colleen Shaddox lives in Hamden, Conn.