…is the name of the cancer charity that was set up by cancer survivor Lance Armstrong in 1997, a year after he was diagnosed, aged 25, with testicular cancer that rapidly spread to his lungs and brain.
I am writing this having just seen the documentary about his drug – fuelled career as a cyclist, ‘The Armstrong Lie’. I knew that the film would trigger feelings of anger, resentment and betrayal in me. He is being sued by former sponsors for $100 million.He owes me £13.98 for the 2 books of his which I bought, along with countless others, keen to read his inspiring story of his triumph in the face of life threatening adversity.
Naturally enough the film focuses on the unravelling of his career as the world’s greates cyclist. But there was something else in the film, something that unsettled me.
There was a portion of the film that showed him having treatment in hospital, visiting cancer wards, and speaking about the work of the Livestrong Foundation. It was his experience and influence in what the film called ‘the cancer community’ that made me identify with him, and those people living with cancer whom he inspired.
He is a peer. He has shared experience of suffering from a disease that nearly killed him. He can connect with people in the cancer community because he knows what it’s like. Thankfully, cancer – and male cancers in particular much thanks to him – no longer attract the stigma they once did.
What hit home for me was that I am a peer, too. While I have never had cancer, I do know what it is like to belong to communities of people who suffer from mental illness. I know the power that these relationships have played in maintaining my health, and the crucial role they play in supporting me when I am sick. The sense of empathy, hope, and acceptance that exchanging experiences has is a relief from the indifference, marginalisation, isolation and helplessness that provides the background music for the dull thud of days.
Not everyone who I meet who suffers from mental health problems are very nice. I am not very nice some of the time. Most of the time mental illness is all we have in common.
I guess the story of Lance Armstrong, the drug cheat, the cancer survivor and campaigner, is an uncomfortable reminder for me of the strain on the limits of my empathy that even mental illness can have.
I felt a cleavage in my mind
As if my brain had split;
I tried to match it, seam by seam,
But could not make it fit.
The thought behind I strove to join
Unto the thought before,
But sequence ravelled out of reach,
Like balls upon a floor.
Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886)