Oncology nurse still believes in Lance Armstrong

Jan. 26, 2013 @ 05:32 PM

When Jean Sellers spent a week pedaling across the country with world-class cyclist Lance Armstrong a decade ago, she had no inkling of how performance-enhancing drugs had helped make him who he was.
She just remembers what a powerful drug Armstrong himself was for the countless cancer patients he inspired as they rode from town to town during the 2003 Tour of Hope.
“He really is the icon of hope for cancer patients,” says Sellers, an oncology nurse and cancer survivor with strong ties to High Point. “...I can’t speak to his personal life, but I can speak on what he has meant to cancer survivors and to myself when I was in that dark place.”
Sellers, who is now the administrative clinical director of the UNC Cancer Network in Chapel Hill, was the oncology patient care coordinator for High Point Regional Health System in 2003, when she rode with Armstrong in the Tour of Hope. The weeklong, cross-country bike ride was designed to raise awareness of the importance of cancer research and clinical trials.
At the time, Armstrong was the golden child of the cycling world — having won the Tour de France five years in a row — and the poster child of the cancer world. He had not only survived his own battle with testicular cancer, despite a grim prognosis, but also had created the Livestrong cancer-support organization and had helped raise millions of dollars for cancer research.
Sellers, one of 26 cyclists from across the country chosen to ride on the Tour of Hope, had worked in High Point Regional’s oncology unit for nearly a decade. Inspired to become an oncology nurse after watching her father battle a malignant brain tumor, she developed a passion for helping cancer patients on their journey, and she saw the Tour of Hope as another way she could help make a difference.
Following the ride, during which Sellers had numerous one-on-one conversations with Armstrong, she told the High Point Enterprise she admired his fervent commitment to the cause of cancer research.
“He said that if he had to choose between having cancer and having won the Tour de France, he would choose having cancer, because of the difference it’s made in people’s lives,” Sellers said at the time. “I think those of us in the world of oncology realize he is just what we needed to move the way we care for cancer patients to the next level, and if anyone is going to make a difference, it’s going to be him.”
Fast-forward to January 2013 — when Armstrong finally admitted to Oprah Winfrey and the world that he had doped to enhance his cycling ability — and his statement from 2003 suddenly seems disingenuous; his win-at-all-costs approach clearly shows how much the Tour de France meant to him.
Sellers admits she found Armstrong’s nationally televised confession “very disappointing,” but she still believes in his potential as an advocate for cancer patients, despite his fall from grace in the public eye.
“He’s still an inspiration because he is a survivor of cancer — he’s such a hero to so many people,” she says.
“People can be quick to judge, and I think with all athletes or people of high profile, there is pressure to live up to the fairy-tale image they can have. So it’s not for me to judge him and the decisions he’s made, but I know what I’ve seen him do for the cancer community.”
She saw it even before the 2003 Tour of Hope, primarily through Armstrong’s inspiring autobiography published in 2000, “It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back To Life.”
“As an oncology nurse, I remember seeing patients read his book during their treatments in the chemo room,” she says. “Oftentimes, it would be the first book that patients tried to get their hands on following their diagnosis, as his story represented such hope.”
Then, during the Tour of Hope, she saw the impact that Armstrong — once battling death, but now restored to full health and athleticism — had on the cancer patients he encountered. A typical encounter, she recalls, was the visit he paid to a little boy of 7 or 8 battling leukemia.
“He was in full gear visiting the chemo unit of a children’s hospital, and I remember him walking up to this little boy with no hair, and he said, ‘You can do this because I did it — you’re going to get through this,’” Sellers says.
At that moment, she says, Lance Armstrong was a hero to a little boy not because he’d won the Tour de France five times, but because he’d won something more important — his battle against cancer.
Three years ago, when Sellers was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and underwent chemo and a bone marrow transplant, she again thought of Armstrong.
“I was terrified,” she says. “But alone in my bed, I found understanding, faith and hope in remembering the stories from my patients and others, including Lance, who had faced this disease and survived.”
Sellers also knows the impact Livestrong has had. Since its inception in 1997, the foundation has raised nearly $500 million to support cancer survivors and has served some 2.5 million people affected by the disease.
Having said all of that, Sellers still understands that Armstrong has been stripped of so much in the past few months: He’s lost his Tour de France titles. He’s lost an Olympic bronze medal. He’s lost his right to compete. He’s lost his reputation.
And he’s lost his dignity.
One thing he hasn’t lost, Sellers says, is his cancer journey — and, in Sellers’ mind, his ability to still make a difference in the lives of other cancer patients.
“Nobody can take away the fact that he is a cancer survivor and what he’s been through with his own health,” she says. “And I think people facing cancer still need him to be a voice for them, to give them the hope they need to survive.”
jtomlin@hpe.com | 888-3579