“L I V E S T R O N G” is tattooed on my right wrist.
It seems a little bit odd to have a tattoo of a brand that’s associated with one of the greatest athlete cheating controversies of all time, doesn’t it? But as they say… “there’s a reason for everything.”
It’s Not About The Bike, Lance Armstrong’s NYT bestselling memoir, was written way before his seven world stage victories at the Tour De France and before he was ousted as a blood doper.
More importantly — it was published just a few years before my mom’s first breast cancer diagnosis. (Just kidding that’s not at all more important — but for the purposes of this story it is.)
Lance’s story was the catalyst for the Livestrong Foundation which “unites, inspires and empowers people affected by cancer” according to its mission statement.
If my twelve year old memory serves me right, this book — It’s Not About the Bike — and Livestrong in general were a good part of what got my mom through her first experiences with chemotherapy and radiation.
For a bald young woman in her late thirties, with a passion for long-distance running, Lance was her hero. His story was evidence of hope, possibility, and life after cancer.
She became obsessed — obsessed with rewriting this “beat the odds” story for herself. Like Lance had been, she was far too young, healthy, and strong to die from this terrible disease.
She wouldn't let an IV drip hold her down. And she’d prove it, too…continuing to sprint up hills faster than I could ever dream.
There was something so sickening to her about “Breast Cancer Awareness Month” — brands claiming their support for a limited time to see increased profits. But Livestrong, that was different. Livestrong is for fighters and survivors — to build hope in a place that hope is scarce. And that it did.
She bought so many of those yellow bracelets I’m convinced she must have gotten some wholesale deal. She made us wear them everyday way before they were a fashion statement. She would give them out to anyone who would take one. (And I’ve always thought secretly that she must have been the one to make them “cool” in Southern NH.)
Her license plate read LIVSTRG— and soon we started referring to her SUV as the “Livestrong Mobile.” She watched every Tour De France intently. She found ways to bust through the standards of what a “cancer patient” had to be. She pushed against and prodded the boundaries of what was possible.
Just a few months ago, I finally sat down and read It’s Not About The Bike. It’d be easy to let the “truth” color how this book reads. I’ll admit Lance and his ghostwriter spend an inordinate amount of time defending against claims that he was cheating.
But instead, I tried to take the perspective of a young mother of three, with the whole world in front of her. An energetic and kind human being who did everything seemingly right that still got cancer anyways. Someone searching for a glimmer of hope in a dark and stormy time.
LIVESTRONG may be associated with a massive cheating scheme. Lance Armstrong’s name may be irrevocably tarnished. The Tour De France victories may have been stripped. But the truth remains: LIVESTRONG is on my wrist.
When I look down at this discolored, tainted brand — I feel united, inspired, and empowered… by her and the most powerful lessons she left behind.
Here are just a few:
What you believe becomes your reality.
Two days before my mom received her second cancer diagnosis, we stood in our kitchen together. She admitted she was terrified on what the test results may say. Looking back, I realize she already knew something was wrong — there was a lump in her trap area that was off-putting given her past medical history. But despite having this gut feeling, she was okay; she looked and felt healthy. She was energetic and vibrant as ever.
When she received the super-fucking-dumb-piece-of-shit news, as I like to call it, she called me. I was so upset I slammed a salad bowl down in the university dining hall and stormed out with at least fifty peers staring directly at me. It didn’t matter.
I went home a few days later. After hugging and crying and talking, I did something I’m totally proud of…I yelled at her. Quite passionately actually.
“Ma — you’re letting it take your life. Four days ago you were fine. What’s changed? You’re not this fucking weak.”
We had stood in that same spot only four days ago and she was more than fine. That day, just because some doctor told her she had the big C word living in her lymph, she looked gray — almost as if death had started its takeover.
Her glow came back quickly. I’m sure she stayed up all night that night to wrap her head around the challenge in front of her. And from that day on, she took every bag of chemo and every brain radiation session like a champ. She may have been deeply afraid, but she didn’t let that fear own her. She absolutely crushed cancer from my view.
Lance describes this as he saw it:
Anything’s possible. You can be told you have a 90-percent chance or a 50-percent chance or a 1-percent chance, but you have to believe, and you have to fight.
She’d live another 2.5 years. By all my estimations now (I never looked at the data while she was alive), she should have never lived that long. It was because she was just crazy enough to believe she could. And when she let go of that belief, was ready to go, and the cancer was ready to take her, off she went.
Human beings are imperfect.
Do the ends justify the means for Lance? His story likely bought my mom more time — maybe even a decade — does that mean cheating was objectively okay?
I don’t feel I’m anywhere near qualified enough to answer that question. But I do know this: we are all imperfect.
We all have things we are hiding. None of us are immune to human nature. We all have things we aren’t proud of doing or saying. Pain, hurt, depression, power — these things blind us from doing the right thing for reasons we cannot fully explain.
I have a tendency to put my mom up on a pedestal — as if she was as saint-like as a human being can get. I’m not convinced I’m wrong. She was damn near close to perfect… but the truth is: she wasn’t. There are conversations we never had. Things she never owned up to. Truths she never spoke. Mistakes she made. Pain she caused.
But damn did she try. She put in every ounce of effort into being the best human being she could be. And so, any residual pain is far outweighed by the good she taught me.
I kind of like picturing her as a deranged and moody teenager or a grieving daughter in her early 20s. Somehow I feel in those projections we are closer because of our shared imperfections, whether they’re entirely made up or not.
Greatness comes in all forms.
My mom was a certified bad-ass. With terminal cancer, she still managed to run 6+ miles per day, work full time, and raise three kids. She snapped sometimes. She had her down moments for sure. But showed up everyday with a smile and a hard hug. No questions asked.
Lance writes that the role of the cancer patient, too, is:
“To redefine what’s humanly possible.”
I think she did that. She wasn’t an Olympic athlete or a Fortune 500 CEO. She wasn’t an esteemed author or a widely know motivational speaker. She didn’t have a large Instagram following. She didn’t even have a Facebook.
But she was a damn good mother, sister, daughter, and friend. She deemed her last 7 months of life in 2014 the “No Excuses Tour.” Who fucking does that? Seriously, who does that?
And even when she was on her death bed, unable to really see straight — she was still making me laugh saying stupid things like:
“Too bad I can’t stand up… I guess that makes me a sit down comedian.”
That’s some real Marvel superhero-shit right there. To keep up the pace with life even when the odds are stacked against you. To maintain a sense of humor despite the obstacles in front of you. To show up as the best mother you can be. To love your husband unconditionally. To fight and fight and fight. To live purely in service of others.
To have doctors saying to me, “Kate, you know she’s only here for you and your brothers, right? There’s no way she should still be alive in this condition.”
To me, that’s greatness.
I never thought I’d get a tattoo. I never wanted one. Even after she died, it didn’t cross my mind. Plus, she’d made me promise I never would get one (hopefully she forgives me — hard times call for tattoos, I guess).
But this L I V E S T R O N G tattoo grounds me. It reminds me of my mom — but more than anything it reminds me of what she taught me: the best we can do, day in and day out, is cultivate empowering beliefs, accept our imperfection, and find our own greatness.
Thanks as always, Mom ;)