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The Real Survivor

July 31, 2001

Measure time by the stopwatch and Lance Armstrong, who won his third Tour de France victory Sunday, was simply the fastest cyclist over the grueling 2,146-mile race. But measure time differently, in years since his 1996 diagnosis of advanced testicular cancer, the surgery, the chemotherapy and all the rest, and Armstrong's win becomes much more than first place in a three-week race through France against the world's best bicyclists.

Despite billions of dollars in research and a 30-year federal "war on cancer," some 1,268,000 Americans this year will hear the chilling words, "I'm sorry to tell you it's malignant." Most will survive, but cancer remains enough of a mystery that physicians don't always know who or why. Sometimes an aggressive tumor can be beaten back, as in Armstrong's case. But other times the small, confined lump--the one the surgeon swears he "got"--roars back and kills.

In the place of scientific certainty, cancer patients and those with other life-threatening illnesses are left with faith. For some that means religious faith. For others, survival comes down to a kind of personal belief that how you live with cancer, how you make peace with the relentless uncertainty and a lifetime of unnerving checkups, is what matters.

Cancer has spawned a world of support groups, diets, run/walks, everyday heroes and heroines and celebrity survivors, Armstrong among them. His back-to-back-to-back wins in the Tour de France have drawn cheers and tears from millions, not only because of his audacious grab for athletic indomitability but for his courage in whizzing through the Pyrenees Mountains, whistling past the graveyard.

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