A major figure in the sports world says he wants to form an “army” that will help wage the final battles in the “war” against cancer.
“What we need is an Army. We need an Army of people. It starts in Iowa,” Lance Armstrong said during an appearance in Newton on Wednesday. “Now’s the time to make a difference and knock this thing out forever.”
Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France winner, has been in Iowa since mid-day Wednesday to ride part of RAGBRAI — the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. But Friday morning, Armstrong is the main attraction at a political event in Iowa City. Armstrong will testify at a U.S. Senate field hearing focusing on federal funding of cancer research.
“We hear every day how we’re in the middle of a war, maybe a war in Iraq. It might be a war on terror. Let me tell you about a war. This is a war that’s 35 years old and this is the war that’s about time in my opinion that we get done with and that we finish,” Armstrong said Wednesday.
Armstrong made it clear he is in Iowa trying to spark a national conversation about cancer research because Iowans host the nation’s first test of the presidential campaign. “This state holds an incredibly important place for us and for this process that we’re going to go through in 2008 and that’s the reason we’re here,” Armstrong said. “We’re going to talk about that. We’re going to listen to what you have to say.”
Ten years ago Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer. His well-chronicled and successful battle against the disease prompted legions of his fans and other cancer survivors to don “Livestrong” wrist bands in the color yellow, the color of the winning jersey for the Tour de France. As Armstrong sped along miles of Iowa roads the past two days — passing corn fields and small towns along the way — he saw snatches of yellow everywhere. “I don’t know who got the memo, but when I was riding today, 90 percent of the people had yellow wrist-bands on…I was completely blown away by that,” Armstrong said. “If we can just take a small percentage of that population and turn it into a political action group or a group that says ‘You know what, I care about it. I want to make a difference and it’s time to end the fight. It’s time to end the disease that we know (as) cancer. If we can do that, ultimately we can win.”
An estimated crowd of 15,000 stood in the humid Iowa heat Wednesday night to listen to Armstrong and he repeatedly urged the crowd to political action. “Just keep reminding our country’s leaders that — you know what? — the number one killer in this country deserves some attention,” Armstrong said. “For the first time in 35 years, I’ll remind you, the budget at the National Cancer Institute has shrunk. For the first time in the history of this war, we’re going to lose money. Not acceptable.”
Armstrong repeatedly referred to cancer research as a part of the “war” to eradicate the disease, and he used what he referred to as a “startling” statistic about the number of cancer deaths in the U.S. to illustrate his point. “And I think it gets lost in the fray of the media, but it’s 9/11 every two days,” Armstrong said. “How long would this government and country put up with that? It wouldn’t put up with it.”
Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee who is a prostate cancer survivor, will join Armstrong at Friday’s hearing to tell his personal story. Kerry, who wears one of those “livestrong” wrist bands every day, says Armstrong has the potential to be pivotal in mobilizing voters. “Lance has secured a special place in history as one of those rare, global athletes and recognizable figures who has a certain power through that,” Kerry says. “I’m glad to be seeing him putting it to really worthwhile use.”
But Kerry cautions against believing the battle is easily won with Armstrong in the political fight. “There have been very visible people who previously have stood up and spoken out on issues, you know, like (former First Lady) Nancy Reagan on stem cell research and you still have a president who vetoes it,” Kerry says.
Senator Tom Harkin will convene the hearing at which Armstrong and Kerry will testify, and Harkin calls Armstrong one of the greatest athletes of our time. “I’ve known Lance Armstrong for several years now and the one thing I do know about him is he has laser focus when he gets focused on something as we’ve seen from the Tour de France,” Harkin says. “He is focused on cancer research.”
Armstrong promised this week to return to Iowa next July when the presidential politicking will be intense. Harkin describes Armstrong as a “good person” who employs a “no-nonsense” approach to his political activism. “If he’s going to be in Iowa, I hope he’s going to pressure every one of the presidential candidates to get on board supporting more and better cancer research.”
Harkin echoes Armstrong’s concern about federal support of cancer research. “The budget for the National Cancer Institute was reduced by about $40 million this year,” Harkin says. “I’ll be frank to admit that $40 million is not huge in comparison to the amount of money that goes to the National Cancer Institute. What’s disturbing is that we’re going in the wrong direction.”
But Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Republican leader in the U.S. Senate, paints a different picture. Frist, who 12 years ago before he entered politics was a physician, says he’s proud of the “hugely important role” federal funding has playing in the fight against cancer. “Since I have been in the United States Senate (the past eight years) we have doubled the funding for research at the National Institutes of Health and we’re seeing the payout where for the first time over the last year and a half the death rate for cancer is diminishing,” Frist says.
Frist believes that with continued funding of cancer research from the federal government and the private-sector, within 15 years a diagnosis of cancer will no longer be a death sentence. According to Frist, the eradication of cancer will come later on, but cancer will no longer cause imminent death — perhaps in his lifetime. “It is critically important that we continue to invest in both basic science and clinical science when it comes to that understanding of cancer,” Frist says. Frist will campaign in Iowa this weekend, as will Kerry. Both are potential presidential candidates for 2008.
Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, a prospective presidential candidate in 2008 as well, declared Thursday, July 27, 2006, as “Livestrong, Iowa Day” and Vilsack’s wife spoke just before Armstrong did at a public rally Wednesday night. “Welcome to Iowa, Lance Armstrong. We’re happy to have you here,” Christie Vilsack said. “The governor and I both lost our parents to cancer and we’re happy to have (Armstrong) here to start the conversation about how we cure this disease because I know it’s affected, in some way, most everybody in the audience tonight.”
Governor Vilsack issued a proclamation honoring Armstrong and encouraged Iowans to wear yellow on Thursday as a show of support for Armstrong and other cancer survivors.