36, cancer activist, Austin
In the end, he was right: It’s not about the bike. Nor is it about cycling or sports in general, and it’s certainly not about him, though his celebrity—his popularity, his personality, and his credibility—had everything to do with the passage of Proposition 15, the $3 billion, ten-year cancer research, treatment, and prevention initiative approved by Texas voters on Election Day 2007. If Texas wasn’t already ground zero for the greatest efforts (at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston, among other first-rate institutions) to minimize the disease’s effects in our lifetime, it’s sure to be now. For that we have to thank the Plano native, a seven-time Tour de France winner who is, very likely, the most famous cancer survivor of all time. Diagnosed with a particularly invasive form of testicular cancer in 1996—a germ-cell tumor that metastasized to his brain and lungs—he underwent a course of treatment with the hyperaggressiveness and never-give-up attitude that came to define his years as an athlete. Through the sale of the ubiquitous yellow Live-Strong bracelets and the work of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which he started in 1997 as a support group for cancer patients and their kin, he has become the most famous cancer activist of all time as well.
Okay, Prop 15 passed. Now what?
What happens now is we put in place an oversight committee—it’s appointed by the governor, the lieutenant governor, the Speaker, and a few others—that oversees the allocation of these funds. That’s one of the most critical pieces. It was hard and it was meaningful to raise the money, but we need the best, brightest, smartest, most strategic, most ethical, most balanced group of scientists, doctors, researchers, nurses, and survivors to look at this $3 billion and say, “Okay, here’s where it goes and doesn’t go.”
Regardless of whether you yourself serve, you’ll continue to be an unofficial ambassador on behalf of survivors and sufferers.
That doesn’t change. I will tell you that I want to talk about this in ten years, and if we did nothing, if we spent $10 billion and have nothing to show for it, I want to be partly responsible for that. I will say, “You know what? Here’s why we failed.” But I don’t think that’s gonna happen. It’s my goal and my life’s mission not to be in that position.
What, if anything, has been the immediate effect of Prop 15’s passage?
M.D. Anderson is already recruiting some real stars. This guy, Dr. Ernie Hawk, has already uprooted his family from the National Cancer Institute [in Bethesda, Maryland]. He’s one of the foremost researchers.
You talked a few months ago about “curing cancer.” You said that people who don’t have experience with the disease can’t understand what that means.
Well, it’s a massive disease in terms of numbers.
You said recently it’s as many deaths as if 9/11 occurred every two days.
One American every minute. Just in the time it will take people to read this interview, we will have lost ten, fifteen, twenty lives.
And that’s just deaths. Diagnoses are much greater in number.
Right. You literally have hundreds of types of cancer. Using testicular cancer as an example, even there you have four or five types. I can say, “I had cancer,” but I could break it down and say, “I had testicular cancer,” or break it down and say, “I had metastatic testicular cancer,” or I could say, “I had choriocarcinoma,” which is the cell type. All this stuff has to be fought on that cellular level. You’re dealing with something that is microscopic. So it all becomes this big epidemic that we have to fight. Each type of cancer deserves its own separate approach. Some types get focus, attention, funding, and research. Some don’t.
You look at the disparity at the federal level between—and I’m not picking a fight here—breast cancer and lung cancer. Breast cancer has huge momentum, a huge movement, a huge army of men, women, and children behind it, whereas lung cancer is essentially an orphan disease. People say, “You know what? It was your decision to smoke. You smoked for forty years, and now you’ve got lung cancer, and you’ve got six months to live. It’s your own damn fault.” I’m of the opinion that that’s not the right answer. But before that, I’m of the opinion that we ought not encourage people to smoke. We ought to regulate tobacco. We ought to make America smoke-free. We ought to encourage people to quit.
Will part of this $3 billion go to an education campaign about behavioral issues?
We already spend $3 million a year in Texas on prevention. This will take us to $30 million. That’s a huge investment, but there are a lot of people in this fight who would argue that prevention is the best thing we can do.
Let me ask you about push-back. Who can be against curing cancer? Nobody. Who can be against limiting the number of people who are diagnosed with cancer? Nobody. Who can be against behaviors that cause cancer? Well, there’s an economic issue there. If you’re spending 10x to message prevention, the cigarette companies, for instance, may very well spend 100x to counter that message.
They’re already spending, I believe, $15 billion a year in marketing. It’s hard to spend much more than that. And most of it is directed at the youth population. But we’re making progress. Fewer people smoke now than smoked thirty, twenty, ten years ago.
Are there other kinds of behavior you’re trying to promote?
Oh, you know, the usual stuff: diet, regular exercise, don’t drink too much. All these things we know and were taught as kids and still hear. We’re going to get to a point where between our unhealthy behavior and the way that we process and manufacture foods, the sedentary lifestyle of the youth population—taking physical education out of the schools, kids sitting around watching TV and playing video games—I mean, the obesity epidemic meets diabetes meets heart disease meets cancer. It’s going to be ugly.
Realistically, what do we do about that?
It’s a complicated issue, but we pick the best leaders to solve those problems. That has to be the governor, and that has to be the president.
Will you be out on the trail as an active campaigner for any of the presidential candidates?
I don’t think we will see a day, at least in this election, where I endorse a candidate and go to work for them.
You could pull an Oprah here, couldn’t you?
I’ve said a zillion times that this is an apolitical issue, a bipartisan issue. We’re going to have another opportunity for both candidates or, asterisk, all three candidates—
Way to stoke the Mike Bloomberg fire.
—to lay out their approach. We’re doing another event, in late July, at Ohio State University. It’s our intention to invite them and give them the opportunity to win over the hearts and minds of the voters. Damn it, why wouldn’t somebody who wants to be the president of the United States feel it’s a worthy use of their time to come and discuss the number one killer in this country?
Last question. How’s your health these days? Are you cancer-free? Are you well?
I’m not sure that I’m well. But I’m cancer-free.