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Yellow wristbands going faster than Armstrong

August 04, 2004|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

It was a small detail that caught the eye of millions. A sunny splash of yellow around the wrist of John F. Kerry on the most important night of his political life. As the newly anointed candidate accepted his party's nomination for president of the United States, he raised his arms in salute to reveal more than an elegant cuff and a pricey watch, but an instant bond with cancer survivors and Lance Armstrong admirers everywhere.

The $1 yellow plastic band Kerry wore that night -- emblazoned with Armstrong's mantra, "Live strong" -- was one of about 8 million that now adorn wrists around the globe.

Sporting goods stores can't keep them in stock; they're back-ordered on www.laf.org, the website for the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which is devoted to helping people "live strong" after their cancer treatment. It is a minor groundswell of do-goodism that has surprised even the folks at Armstrong's sponsor, Nike, which designed the bracelets -- and at the foundation in Austin, Texas, which stands to reap about $10 million from their sale.

Armstrong had advanced testicular cancer eight years ago and went on to have three children and win six Tour de France races. Kerry had surgery for prostate cancer in 2003 and went on to run for president.

So wearing the bracelet, for Kerry, was not necessarily a political statement. But this being an election year, some in the media turned it into one. They phoned the White House to find out if President Bush, too, owns a yellow plastic bracelet. Of course he does, they were told. Not only that, Armstrong sits on the president's cancer panel.

Such celebrities as Bono, Bruce Willis, Robin Williams, Matt Damon and Ben Stiller have been seen sporting the bracelet, says Armstrong Foundation spokeswoman Michelle Milford. But it's the millions of anonymous, mostly young wearers who make it a tribute not just to Armstrong and humanity's better nature, but also to the marketing genius of Nike.

The silicone bracelets were introduced just before the Tour de France as a way to raise funds for the star cyclist's charitable foundation. Almost instantly, the gender-neutral bracelets supplanted lapel ribbons as a way for young people, especially, to show support for a cause.

Jessica Brown, 15, of Santa Clarita, says she'd never seen the bracelets until she went to the YMCA camp on Catalina Island in July as a junior counselor. "The directors, the counselors, the staff, even the kids there were wearing them." She decided she wanted one too. Why? "To show support for a good cause. To help people with cancer. It's great when kids get involved with something like this, because kids can really make a difference in the world."

But so far, Jessica says, she hasn't found a bracelet. "They're all sold out everywhere I go."

On Friday, the morning after Kerry's big night, the Sportmart store on Victory Boulevard in Canoga Park had just received its first order of wristbands, after customers had been asking for them for weeks. An hour after the store opened, Eric Thoma, 22, of West Hills, was wearing two bands, side by side on his wrist. "My aunt just got diagnosed about a month ago with Stage 4 melanoma," Thoma said. "She's going through a new kind of treatment, and I got these to show support for her fight against cancer, and to support Armstrong, who's survived to become one of the greatest athletes of all time."

Don Carlos De Rush, 27, a clerk at a downtown Los Angeles law firm, says a friend of his bought "a bunch of them to support the cause. He gave me one, told me what it was about, and I started wearing it three days ago. On Sunday, I went surfing at Huntington Beach and I saw people wearing them there. They're popping up all over."

Octavio Zavala, 31, of Los Angeles, wears his with a special sense of pride. He coordinates the Teen Impact program, a support group for adolescents with cancer, at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles. Last year the group applied for and received funding from the Armstrong Foundation, "which allows us to do some wonderful things for the kids."

Zavala was 12 when he was diagnosed with leukemia, he says, and 16 "when I completed three years and four months of chemotherapy." The treatment forever barred him from "living the active healthy lifestyle I had planned for myself. The chemo weakened my heart." But not his spirit, he says.

To him, the yellow wristbands are a "symbol of victory, of strength and endurance -- all necessary to survive cancer. Not just to come out alive, but to come out as a whole person. People think cancer is mostly a disease of older people. But I think the wristband symbolizes youth. It makes people think of young people with cancer. More and more of these children will survive. We need to improve their quality of life."

Dr. Lawrence Einhorn, oncologist and medical professor at Indiana University, is one of the doctors who treated Armstrong. He says the foundation is doing "an essential job" that is based on the cyclist's own experience. Armstrong's testicular cancer was particularly aggressive, Einhorn says, a form of the disease that is most common in males ages 15 to 35. But "that's an age when people feel invincible. They see symptoms and ignore them, don't understand what they mean. Lance would be the first to admit he ignored signs for at least six months" before he sought medical help.

"He was 25. He thought the enlarging mass in his testicle was related to his occupation." By the time he sought help, the cancer had already spread to his abdomen, lungs and brain.

In 1997, he started the foundation, undoubtedly in response to the terrors he had faced in finding the right doctors, the right treatment and the courage and optimism to survive the ordeal. And to live strong.

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