It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life
by Lance Armstrong
Published by Putnam
275 pages, 2000
Buy it online
It's Not About the Easy Path
Reviewed by Janice A. Farringer
Revealing too much about a reviewer is a no no in the book review biz. I'm supposed to tell you what I think and sign off, leaving you to decide whether I am accurate or fair. Well, in this case, I am breaking character. I have cancer and you need to know that because Lance Armstrong had cancer, too, and this is a review of his book about his treatments and triumph over this disease. In other words, you need to know I have the T-shirt, been there, doing that.
Lance Armstrong, for those of you who may not know, is a two time Tour De France winner, post cancer, as well as a new Dad and Olympian. He grew up in Texas and trains there and in Europe, a world-class athlete. At 25, already an elite international bike racer, he was diagnosed with a virulent form of testicular cancer that spread to other parts of his body, including his brain, before it was stopped. He was young, strong, an athlete, single, well-off from his racing revenues and he faced a very poor prognosis. What is at least an inspiring story, is at its best a true portrayal of what cancer patients young and old face everyday. Some are not so fortunate with their outcomes, but It's Not About the Bike honestly reveals the side of cancer that most relatives and well-wishers never see: that treatment is truly awful, that patients are heroes, oncology units are places of very human emotion and that sometimes your best one liners pop out when your stomach is roiling and your hair is gone.
On the day of my second surgery, I knew what I was facing. I clutched Lance's book until the last moment before anesthesia when the pre-op nurse respectfully took my glasses and laid the book on the chair by the curtain. I had read and read in the days before and I was comforted. I was going where Lance had gone, I wanted an honest portrayal of the difficulties. I didn't want it sugar coated. He doesn't.
The moment that someone tells you this kind of bad news is profoundly confusing. The shock is immediate and the reaction can be to say: Let's get on with it. Let's get this thing cured and done and go on to the next thing. I don't have time for this. The reality is very different and the beauty and honesty of It's Not About the Bike is that Armstrong tells the entire story, not just the triumphant ending. He takes you through the surgeries, the seemingly endless days of profound chemotherapy induced illness and the rehabilitation. Armstrong guts it out on the pages of his book. You can feel his will. This same will is most certainly what has made him a world class athlete, but applied to cancer, it will inspire even those with no athletic ambitions.
The beginning of the book is filled out with Lance's recollections of his formative years, his indomitable single mother's unstinting efforts to improve their lot as well as Armstrong's early days of racing. We meet his agents, his international cast of friends and colleagues. Armstrong even offers some tantalizing hints at the fierce chess-like moves required of riders and agents in the heady echelons of world class racing. For those who don't follow the sport closely, this peek behind the scenes of international bike racing is enough. The main event in this book is the fight for life.
The most telling chapters are about chemotherapy. In these chapters, Armstrong lays it out for the uninitiated. He pretends no heroics, he tells it exactly as a patient sees it. The cure is horrific, make no mistake. But there is heroism in the telling. There is a wonderfully drawn portrait of his oncology nurse, LaTrice Haney. Lance banters and jokes with her when he can talk at all, he tells her about his bike and she allows him to be human in the midst of his pain. Hers is the best kind of nursing. We meet Jim Ochowicz, Lance's friend who tirelessly tries to distract him during the chemo marathons in the hospital. Heroes abound in this book. If we need to be taught about friendship and compassion, these are the teaching chapters.
Then there is life. In Armstrong's case, his cancer was gone after a year. He could start to rebuild and recondition himself for the road ahead. He attacks the project with the style of the athlete he is. He suffers the post-cancer existential survivor questions and rides through them. He begins a new relationship, falls in love with Kik, his future wife and acts like a guy again. In the pursuit of normalcy he is also one of us. The wedding, the longed for baby and the triumphs follow, but Lance Armstrong will never forget where he has been.
I will always carry the lesson of cancer with me and feel that I'm a member of the cancer community. Anyone who has heard the words You have cancer and thought, 'Oh my God, I'm going to die,' is a member of it. If you've ever belonged, you never leave.
It's Not About the Bike is non-fiction and not for everyone. If you have an interest in the spirit and resiliency of the human mind, read it. You will learn something. If you have a friend or a loved one who is touched by cancer, read it. There is comfort here and hope. If you have cancer, read it. It will give you a light for your heart. | November 2000
Janice A. Farringer is a writer and creative writing teacher living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.