Replacing Lance; Cancer heroes

We need heroes.  Heroes show us light in the darkness, the way to the miraculous and ignite a fire in our soul to survive.  They prove what is truly possible, through the fog of the impossible.  We mourn the disgrace of Lance Armstrong because he seems to have achieved Pyrrhic victory.  Let us not doubt; whatever his frailty as a man, Armstrong vanquished a terrible foe; moreover the path blazed is not bare, for everywhere are cancer heroes.

  • The 45yo RN raising her children while she works full time in a pediatric intensive care unit, celebrates her eighth year in remission from pancreatic cancer, treated with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
  • The grandmother who ignored a breast mass for two years so she could care for four disabled grandchildren, and when the tumor grew to be massive, continues to take care of the children while receiving chemotherapy.
  • The hospital chaplain who has suffered from cancer, sits at the bedside holding a hand, sharing a smile, saying a prayer that is heard deep in the heart and to the heavens above.
  • The 71yo with four different cancers, treated with a bewildering mix of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, whose primary worry is the cardiac care of her husband.
  • The 64yo rescue squad volunteer while receiving chemotherapy and radiation for extensive lung cancer, assists 150 people to flee from their homes and escape the wrath of Sandy.
  • The national lymphoma expert, who could be wealthy in his own clinic, instead devotes his life to teaching and research, believing he can save more lives by consulting and advising oncologists in communities around the country.
  • The metastatic colon cancer patient who despite the stress and pain of revealing personal battles, exposes herself by writing a book so that others may have an easier path.
  • The grandfather who designs the timing of his entire chemotherapy regimen, including when he will have side effects, so that he can be at the Chuck E. Cheese birthday party of his five year old grandson.
  • The man with 25 years of metastatic melanoma, who baffles the doctors every time they look at his scans.
  • The husband who remembers his wife, fallen to breast cancer, by devoting large parts of his life to protecting other women from by raising dollars for free mammograms.
  • The hospice nurse with diabetes who leaves the blankets of bed on an 16 degree winter’s midnight to help a family she has never before met, sooth the pain of their father as he lives his last hours.
  • The 31yo with metastatic breast cancer that pushes through treatment side effects to assure that Christmas morn is perfect for her family.
  • The chemotherapy nurse who watches her husband die from cancer, but returns to the battle so that others may live.
  • The 101 year old cancer victor who complains that, “If I had known I was going to live so long, I would have finished college when I was 70.”
  • The oncologist who makes hospital rounds at 6:00am accented with love, intelligence and ridiculous humor.
  • The brother who despite a near pathologic fear of needles and doctors, donates his own bone marrow so that his sister has a small chance of cure.
  • The 85yo woman who only leaves her house for only two hours each week, so that she can be home to take care of her husband in his battle with prostate cancer and Alzheimer’s.
  • The couple, both with cancer, who year after year insist on leading high school field trips to Disney World.
  • The 77yo woman with advanced chronic leukemia who despite being frail and nearly blind, tells her kids that everything is fine, that they should go on with their lives.
  • The daughters of the 77yo woman with advanced chronic leukemia who do not listen to her reassurance and sacrifice their lives to take care of her.
  • The tens of thousands of doctors who volunteer their time to teach medical students and resident physicians, believing they have duty to society and future patients to give back and train new soldiers for the cancer war.
  • The millions of men, women and children that march, raise money, volunteer and give of their lives to make us hopeful, healthy and to build a better tomorrow.

They live among us and in their anonymous victories they teach us, lead us and inspire us to glory.  They are the foundation of hope.  They are light, wisdom and power.  These real cancer heroes bless us, every day.


  • [...] The ongoing discussion of Lance and Livestrong continues, with some interesting takes on celebrity cancer struggles, starting with Ilana Horn’s Lance Armstrong, Susan Komen, cancer and me, a great piece that reminds us that life provides plenty of adversity to remind us what counts, without cancer, and celebrity tales of success just place more pressure on us ordinary folk. Sunrise Rounds reminds us that cancer ‘heroes’ are all around us, no need to resort to the celebrities in Replacing Lance; Cancer heroes. [...]
  • Carolyn Thomas
    Inspired and inspiring list, Dr. S. Any one of these fine examples could serve as worthy role models in lieu of the rightly disgraced Lance Armstrong. What they lack, however, is the celebrity Armstrong brought to the table. Few patients (or their survivors) have the capacity to start up multi-million dollar fundraising foundations, with notable exceptions like Susan G. Komen or (in Canada) our beloved Terry Fox. Armstrong easily had that capacity because of his celebrity status. He didn't win his battle with cancer because he was heroic. He won it because of modern medicine, and the skills of his oncology team, and the fact that he could well afford to pay for all of it. Now, whether it's "heroic" to be a patient struggling through treatment and survival is controversial among patients. As Sarah Cate famously wrote last fall (during the gush of Pinktober): "I am not a hero because I’m fighting Cancer. I’m not worthy of someone’s pedestal because I am choosing to fight for my life. I am not more beautiful, more courageous, more strong, or more worthwhile because I am fighting to be Cancer Free. And I am tired of being told that I am. "I am tired of this pinkwashed view of Cancer patients. Of their strength and beauty and wisdom. My Cancer fight is not pretty. My Cancer fight is not laudable. It just IS." This kind of reluctant heroism may seem surprising to non-patients, but it is also very commonly experienced among those living with heart disease, where I live, too - and my guess is that it's equally true for those suffering with other chronic and progressive diagnoses. Showing up for doctor's appointments, hospital procedures, painful recovery, debilitating medications, ongoing daily symptoms, pervasive lifestyle changes and traumatic loss - well, as Sarah nails it, it "JUST IS". But the patients' caregivers who "sacrifice their lives" to care for the patient? In my eyes, those are the heroic ones.
    • James Salwitz, MD
      Thanks for the wonderful and complex comment. I guess, as in any struggle against a determined enemy, it requires an army of myriad talents and the sacrifice of many. Some will stand tall in order to show the path, while others give in the shadows as they shoulder most of the burden. I agree very much that the efforts of caregivers, particularly because they are not often mentioned, require special honor on any plaque of heroes. jcs
  • JoAnne
    Dear Dr. Salwitz, I love reading your blog! Your words are so eloquently put together in everything you say! You could have chosen to write as your career, but I am so happy you chose to study medicine. I think it is true that when you are faced with a cancer diagnosis, your fight "just is" What other choice is there? Especially when you have children and family members depending on you. You really don't consider yourself a hero. You just pray for the strength to beat it and take it day by day, sometimes minute by minute. Cancer invades your life It is frightening and the outcome is uncertain But there is also hope and strength. I believe you must stay positive through it all As with any obstacle life sends you I didn't think of myself as a hero Then one day, a friend asked me to join in the American Cancer Society Relay for Life It was a very touching experience And not until they asked all the "survivors" to come up on the stage, did I feel I had really made a difference to someone who was living what was once my nightmare She was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer As each survivor approached the stage, they announced how many years you had survived This woman heard the number 7 when they announced my name and as I approached the stage, she came over to me with HOPE in her eyes I was living proof that that diagnosis wasn't a death sentence When I first found out my diagnosis, I didn't know if I would live to see my son graduate high school He is in college now! My heroes are all the amazing people who cared for and supported me through it all My family, friends, and my wonderful doctors, nurses, caregivers in the hospital and at your office - especially Stacy! She was amazing through it all But especially you and Dr. Alvarez. Without the both of you, I just might not be here offering others HOPE in their fight We are all in this together We touch each others lives We are all heroes in our own way Thanks for your beautiful words And for your amazing skill as an oncologist!
    • James Salwitz, MD
      Thank you for your generous, honest and revealing comment. It means a lot to me and I expect to my readers. jcs

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