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Perspective

In defense of Lance Armstrong

How he and Livestrong transformed cancer care around the world.

AFP/Getty Images

IN LIGHT OF THE RECENT EVENTS surrounding Lance Armstrong’s cycling career, some people may be questioning whether they can still see him as a hero. They can. Lance — and the Lance Armstrong Foundation— have an unrivaled commitment to improving the lives of cancer patients in the United States and around the world.

I began my career as an oncologist nearly 40 years ago, shortly after President Nixon declared a War on Cancer. In the intervening years, we focused much of our energy on the eradication of cancers, paying much less attention to the overall needs of patients and their families, as well as the effects of treatment on quality of life.

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Lance changed all of this.

Lance used his own experience fighting testicular cancer to highlight the importance of patients taking an active role in seeking high-quality care, planning treatments with their oncology teams, and focusing on the survivorship issues that arise after treatment ends. In retrospect, it is both astounding and embarrassing that we, members of the medical profession, initially had such a narrow view of our responsibilities to cancer patients and that it took someone like Lance to wake us from this illusion.

Lance and the foundation have reached out directly to patients, becoming an unparalleled source of information and encouragement. They’ve urged patients to take an active role in all aspects of their care — to become informed, to use their will and energy to fight the disease, to seek excellent care and second opinions, and to partner with their care teams. And the patients are listening and taking a more active role in their care. I know this because I have seen this so many times with my patients.

The foundation developed the Livestrong Survivorship Center of Excellence Network in seven comprehensive cancer centers in the United States, including at Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Through the efforts of the Livestrong Network, collaborative research programs have advanced our understanding of many of the challenges patients and families face and helped us develop strategies to ease the short- and long-term effects of both cancer and its treatment. Without the vision, funding, and leadership of the foundation — which has raised nearly $500 million in the past 15 years — it is likely that adult cancer survivorship would be far behind its current state.

Lance and the foundation also have made a commitment to improving cancer care beyond the United States. In many parts of the world, there is little or no care for those suffering from potentially curable cancers. As host of a global cancer summit in Dublin in August 2009, Lance and the foundation spurred the movement to bring care to many who live in low- and middle-income countries. Since then, the foundation has supported the work I do in conjunction with Dr. Paul Farmer and Partners in Health in Rwanda and Haiti, not only with significant funds, but by raising awareness through documentaries and events.

When I sit with a cancer patient at Dana-Farber in Boston, or at Butaro Hospital in Rwanda, I never lose sight of the ways Lance and the foundation have changed cancer care in these diverse locations and how much better and more patient-focused the care is today as compared with earlier in my career.

If you stand in the checkout aisle of your grocery store, the magazines in the rack remind you of what many celebrities do with their fame and fortune. Lance chose to use his prominence to improve the lives of cancer patients everywhere, and the contributions and impact of his foundation stand on their own right. 

I have worked with Lance and the foundation for nearly a decade, am proud of what we have accomplished, and look forward to partnering with them in the years ahead. There is so much more to Lance than his bike, and cancer patients everywhere know this in a very personal way.

Dr. Lawrence N. Shulman is chief of staff and senior vice president for medical affairs at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

 

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