FOR LANCE ARMSTRONG, IT HAD been a golden summer. In May the bicycle road racer had won the 12-day, 1,200-mile Tour DuPont—America’s most prestigious road race—for the second year in a row. He’d been one of America’s top cyclists at the Summer Olympics, and at the end of August placed fourth in the Grand Prix of Switzerland. Better still, Armstrong had just begun to collect the perks showered on top athletes: a $2 million contract to compete for France’s Team Cofidis, a Nike endorsement deal, and a vast, three-bedroom home complete with a swimming pool and Jacuzzi. “Twenty-five and entering the peak of my career,” he says with a rueful smile. “I felt bulletproof.”
He wasn’t. Limping into October with an aching groin, Armstrong went to see a doctor. It took two hours to diagnose the problem: The cycling champion had testicular cancer. Worse yet, the disease had spread to his lungs and abdominal lymph nodes. “I was in shock,” he recalls. “I put my head down on the doctor’s desk and thought about it for a couple of minutes. But there was no point denying it, so I looked up and said, ‘Let’s get started. Let’s kill this stuff.’ ”
So instead of training for a season of elite cycling in Europe, Lance Armstrong, currently ranked seventh among the world’s road racers, will spend the fall weathering chemotherapy. “Testicular cancer is highly curable now,” says Dr. J. Dudley Youman, the Austin, Texas, oncologist treating Armstrong. He puts his patient’s chances of surviving the disease at 65 to 80 percent, and says the odds would have been close to 100 percent had the cancer been caught before it spread. Armstrong hopes to turn his plight into a lesson for men between the ages of 20 and 34—prime candidates for the disease that will strike 7,400 Americans this year. “I never thought I’d get cancer,” Armstrong says. “But young, strong men should realize that this can happen.”
Resting in his Austin living room and still foggy from his first week of chemotherapy, Armstrong shakes his head as he ponders his reversal. It began on Sept. 28, he recalls, with a pain in his right testicle. A few days before, he had coughed up some blood. Long accustomed to the discomforts of pushing a bike 7 hours a day, Armstrong shrugged off the symptoms. “You have to perform with pain as an athlete,” he says.
Looking back, though, Armstrong wonders if his competitive drive drowned out some crucial messages from his body. In July a case of bronchitis forced him to drop out of the Tour de France, and even when Armstrong notched 6th-and 12th-place finishes at the Olympics, the racing left him more fatigued than usual. Still, Armstrong continued to push himself, competing in Belgium and Germany in September. It took the discovery of the cancer to turn his energies inward.
His first impulse was to pick up the pace. “I’ve always believed in facing a situation immediately,” Armstrong says. He had his cancerous testicle removed the morning after the diagnosis, and after spending a few days recuperating from the surgery, reported for his first chemotherapy session. On the advice of a nutritionist, Armstrong also radically altered his diet—giving up red meat, dairy products, even his beloved coffee. Still, the chemotherapy dragged him down, and by the end of his first week the once-hyperactive athlete found himself taking two-hour naps every afternoon, even after sleeping 10 hours at night.
Not that Armstrong isn’t accustomed to adversity. Reared in Piano, Texas, by Linda Walling, a 17-year-old single mother who worked as a secretary (she married technical recruiter John Walling in 1992), Armstrong never cared to meet his father and learned self-reliance at an early age. “He was high-energy all the time,” recalls Walling. “I had to channel that energy into something positive.” Pointing him toward sports in fifth grade, Walling watched him become a disciplined distance runner, usually doing six miles a day after class. Then, at 13, he discovered competitive cycling. Invited to international races while he was still in high school, Armstrong spent weeks in Europe racing against the world’s best. To keep his show on the road, he worked supporters like a politician, sending thank-yous to race organizers, keeping a Rolodex of potential sponsors.
His efforts paid off. U.S. Amateur champ at 20, Armstrong represented the U.S. at the ’92 Olympics, then turned pro in 1993, when he took six titles for the Motorola team, winning the World Championships, the U.S. Nationals and one of the 20 stages of the Tour de France. Armstrong’s talents won him legions of fans; his brashness, some critics. “Some people think Lance is conceited or obnoxious,” says teammate Frankie Andreu. “But he has proven he can win the biggest races in the world. He’s a champion.”
Not a champion untouched by fear, however. Those closest to Armstrong see beyond his game face now. “He’s scared,” says Armstrong’s girlfriend, Lisa Shiels, 22, a University of Texas junior. “He doesn’t know what’s going to happen.” Or maybe he does. “I’m going to be miserable,” he says of the weeks ahead. Tm going to be hating life.” But then the old confidence returns. “With my fitness level, my drive and my desire,” he says, “I’m not going to lose. I can’t lose.”
BOB STEWART in Austin