Why all we cancer survivors can share in the glory of this man's achievement


YOU CANNOT imagine the pleasure and pride I felt when the 27-year-old Texan cyclist Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France race so convincingly and in such style.

I felt I had to share in his glory. It was almost as if I had ridden down the Champs Elysees and into the Place de la Concorde myself. I knew what he was going through, for I was reminded of the intense emotions which I felt in 1981 when I won the Grand National on Aldaniti. You see, Lance and I have one thing in common. We are lucky to be alive - far less winning international races. For we have both survived testicular cancer and gone on to live full and demanding lives.

I don't want to appear arrogant about our achievements. My hope is that other cancer sufferers can learn from our experience and gain the confidence and determination which is utterly crucial - with the best professional treatment, of course - if they are to fight back and defeat this most feared of diseases.

I am convinced many sufferers die because they have - understandably - lost the will to live. They have given up the struggle for survival. I should know, because it almost happened to me. Now I give thanks that I was given the strength of will to carry on.

It is shattering for a tough and healthy young man to be told that he has cancer. When the bad news was broken to me, I simply assumed that, whatever words of encouragement the specialists might utter, my life was coming to an end.

Cancer was still a dirty word in those days and all that ordinary people such as me knew about it was that it was appallingly painful and ended in death. The idea that you could go through the valley of the shadow of death and come out cured was unthinkable.

No wonder that, after two painful operations and intensive chemotherapy (much more brutal 20 years ago than it is today) I was on the verge of abandoning my treatment and walking out of the Royal Marsden Hospital in London.

The specialist had told me that I had only a 50/50 chance of surviving the cancer and the treatment. I felt, as a racing man, that I could not take any more pain and suffering. The odds were simply not good enough. (These days, I stress, chemotherapy is more sophisticated and 90pc of men in my condition survive).

I was not married and had no children. I was my own man, master of my fate. So I persuaded myself that my fear was, in fact, courage and I made my decision. I would go back to riding for as long as I could and if (as seemed certain) my rebellion against treatment killed me, so be it. I'd had a good run for my money.

Looking back, I can only shake my head at what an appalling pit of despair that was for a young man of 30 with the world before him to have stumbled into. The young nurse I told of my worry suggested that I walk round the hospital before making my decision. I did so, and I saw the children's ward.

I sometimes wonder whether she deliberately pointed me in that direction. Be that as it may, there were youngsters undergoing chemotherapy at least as severe as mine, and doing so without fuss or self pity. I was flooded with disgust at my weakness, went back to my ward and told my friend the nurse I was determined to fight on.

As soon as I left hospital I was invited to stay with my sister Mary, her husband Richard and their two children - Emma, then five, and Nick who was younger. What a wonderful gesture that was, for few parents with young children would happily invite a man who might well be terminally ill with cancer into their home without some anxieties about the shattering effect it might have on the youngsters. In fact, it was once again children who gave me strength. Mary decided she was a nurse and she spent hours every day nursing me back to health. Nick was really too young to know what was happening, but he was terrific.

'I was in despair, but the courage
of the children inspired me to fight on'

I told myself I could not possibly let them down by giving up at the last hurdle. However awful I felt from time to time, I knew that I had to fight on for the sake of those who believed in me. For me, the next step was to set myself goals. I told myself I would be back in the saddle by spring. In fact, it took six months longer than I anticipated but I did make it.

Then my troubles really began. My muscles had atrophied and my lungs were in a fearful state. But I knew that, as a jockey, there was no middle way. I had to give up or to rebuild my body. I chose the latter course and six months to the day after I climbed painfully back into the saddle, I entered my first race - and won. The feeling of sheer triumph was almost undescribable.

During those gruelling six months I had envied patients who were going back to sit behind desks. They did not need to get back into the peak of condition in order to work. I was wrong, of course. Rebuilding my body was an essential part of my recovery and it made it possible for me to enter - and win - the Grand National.

That is why I value Lance Armstrong's comment after his Tour de France victory: 'This is a special, special day for me. But even more importantly it is a victory for all victims of cancer everywhere. If I have brought a little belief that there can be life after cancer then I am a happy man. I stand here as proof that it is possible to return from this terrible illness to a normal existence.'

My sentiments exactly, Lance. But at your moment of triumph you expressed them so much better than ever I could have done.

THE Bob Champion Cancer Trust, 6 Old Garden House, The Lanterns, Bridge Lane, London SW11 3AD; tel: 0171-9243553.

By Bob Champion
Daily Mail (27th July 1999)