Since Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, outrage, shock and anger have proliferated. Amid that commentary, some have urged the public to look beyond Lance’s denials about his systematic doping and focus instead on the hope and support he has provided for cancer patients.
I saw up close the positive effect that Lance Armstrong had on the cancer community, when my health-care public relations firm Spectrum worked with him on behalf of our client Bristol-Myers Squibb between 1999 and 2005 — the time he is now accused of doping and deceiving the public, including millions of cancer survivors who consider him a hero.
Now, however, Lance’s cancer advocacy efforts sour me on the idea that we need big names to gain support for causes and diseases. Perhaps it’s not “heroes” like Lance to whom we should turn for inspiration. Instead, everyday cancer survivors are the ones who really earn and deserve accolades.
Spectrum conceived of and managed a program called the Tour of Hope, which featured Lance riding across the country with dozens of other skilled but amateur cyclists affected by cancer, whether survivors, researchers, caregivers or loved ones. We organized this event as Lance claimed his final (former) Tour de France crowns, so his star was burning brightly. We knew that his compelling story depended on his significant credibility, and we won comprehensive media attention and attendance by thousands of cancer survivors, their families and friends to large and small events staged across the 3,200-mile route.
People who witnessed the Tour of Hope were star-struck by Lance’s presence, and he effectively used the national platform to encourage public attention to cancer clinical trials, to rally for more research funding from Congress and to promote patient compliance with cancer therapies. He also provided hope and inspiration for many cancer patients and survivors.
No miles nor words were wasted on the way. Taking cancer to task was the finish line. But once those crowds gathered, we noticed that, remarkably, the spotlight shifted.
It was the simple, heartwarming stories of the other riders that really touched people. Not many people could identify with larger-than-life Lance, but many women could imagine the fear that sports management professor Mary Kreis felt when she was pregnant and diagnosed with melanoma. Darren Mullen’s story of his wife’s breast cancer diagnosis and eventual death from the disease rang true for hundreds in attendance. And when the Tour of Hope stopped at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, the biggest signs and loudest cheers were for Richard Shaffer, who had moved there to undergo treatment for esophageal cancer. It was a homecoming for Dick, and the staff who cared for him welcomed him and rejoiced in his good health and his compelling story. Sadly, they were among the hundreds who mourned his death a year later, when Dick was remembered for both his passion for life and for finding a cure for cancer. The Tour of Hope made spokespeople and advocates out of these everyday lives touched by cancer.
Lance Armstrong always delivered for cancer survivors. In hundreds of interviews, he stayed on message: If I can beat cancer and win the races, there’s no limit to what cancer survivors anywhere can do. Like many bicycling fans and cancer survivors, I believed Lance when he tirelessly maintained that he’d never failed a drug or doping test.
But here’s the question for today: Why does the world need superstars, whether real or exposed later as fakes, to champion cancer or any other disease? Everyday cancer survivors are heroes enough for me. You don’t have to cheat to win the race against cancer. You just need to do your best with the help of friends, caregivers and therapies based on legitimate science.
Those cancer survivors who were inspired by Lance particularly deserve to know the whole truth — and perhaps that is what he intends to finally deliver when he speaks to Oprah Winfrey next week. The history is clear: The American people forgive if you come clean. But if Lance continues to lash out, and then hide and obfuscate, he will do a disservice to millions who looked up to him. This kind of betrayal will not be soon forgotten by cancer survivors who enthusiastically put their faith in him and his story. I’m not sure he wants to perpetuate the legacy of liar.
It’s time to come clean, Lance — if not for your former sponsors and cycling fans, then for Mary Kreis, Darren Mullen, Dick Shaffer and millions more who embraced you as a symbol of hope and true conquest.
John J. Seng is founder and president of the public relations firm Spectrum.