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How did Lance Armstrong beat his cancer?

16 July 2011

This week’s article was inspired by Hollis Cameron in San Diego, CA:

How did Lance Armstrong beat his cancer/cancers?

What an appropriate question for mid-July! We’re right in the midst of the Tour de France, arguably the most grueling endurance race on the planet. In fact, today’s stage ended at Plateau de Beille, an alpine ski resort in the French Pyrenees where Lance himself won en route to his 2002 overall victory at the Tour. (See photo to the right)

The Texan Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France seven times, more than any athlete before or since. He was one of the most dominant athletes of his generation and his influence spans more than his sport. He often claims that his hardest battle was not amidst the thin air of the jagged Alps, but in a hospital bed in Indiana. With the odds stacked against him, Lance Armstrong went on to beat his testicular cancer. Like all major victories, his battle was both part will and part luck.

I do not have access to Lance Armstrong’s medical records, but Sally Jenkins’s book on Armstrong It’s Not About the Bike describes in fairly good detail some of his experiences with cancer. Or I should say: good enough for this scientific apprentice to piece a thing or two together?

Armstrong only sought medical attention once he started coughing up blood. By this time his left testicle had swollen to the size of a grapefruit and had known that something was not right for a while. The cough was caused by metastatic tumors that had spread to his lungs. When he finally went to the doctor, x-rays revealed many tumors in his lungs, and further investigation revealed metastases in his brain.

The doctors immediately removed the offending testicle. Next, they attempted a surgical procedure to remove tumors from his brain. Armstrong was extremely fortunate in a sense that his brain tumors had already stared to die off on their own, and were relatively simple for the surgeon to remove.

His second major strike of luck was that his tumors responded really well to the then-new platinum-based chemotherapy. The drug? Cisplatin. It works by actually causing MORE damage to DNA in quickly dividing cells. It has some pretty serious side effects, including: hair loss, extreme weight loss, muscle atrophy, unexplained pain, and severe anemia. It’s a double-edged sword at best, but there is one type of cancer that it works really well against: testicular cancer. The reason why cisplatin works so well against testicular cancer and not other cancers is not known.

Armstrong’s tumors practically melted away with the drugs his doctors gave him. His recovery was greatly aided by the fact that he was in very good physical shape prior to his diagnosis, which many doctors speculate is what can help young patients survive cancer more often than their more mature counterparts. (I hope I don’t sound too much like a broken record when it comes to the importance of physical fitness to mitigate cancer risk)

His story underscores the importance of a good communication with your doctor. Although it is rare, cancer can affect young people, and no one is immune to cancer. That being said, it’s really not worth it to worry about such things unless one develops highly atypical symptoms that do not go away. An example would be a rapidly expanding testicle.


Reference: It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life by Sally Jenkins, Lance Armstrong

See the Cancer for Dummies homepage for more articles!

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