Cancer survivor Mike Lane knows Lance Armstrong confessed to taking banned drugs in his first interview since being stripped of a record seven Tour de France titles. But it doesn't change his admiration for the disgraced cycling champion.
"A side of me feels he helped save my life, so I have to support him," said Lane, an equipment manager for Stanford football who, like Armstrong, was successfully treated for testicular cancer.
Armstrong's stunning reversal after years of vehement denials about doping has resulted in widespread condemnation of the cyclist. But the feelings are much more complicated among people like Lane -- those touched personally by cancer -- who long have seen Armstrong as far more than just an athlete.
"I want to see it and hear it from him," Lane added. "But there is not much that can make me feel differently about him."
Reports that Armstrong came clean about his cheating broke shortly after the taping of his sit-down with Oprah Winfrey this week. It remains unclear just how much the brash Texan will acknowledge in an interview that is scheduled to begin airing Thursday on Winfrey's network, OWN.
But the admission is seen as Armstrong's first step toward a path of redemption with a public that has hardened against him. Since a damning October report by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, Armstrong has lost his major sponsors, been forced to step away from the Livestrong cancer charity he founded and seen his lofty public standing crumble.
"While we applaud his involvement in cancer causes, the adulation rings hollow now when you realize he achieved his celebrity through cheating," said Kirk Hanson, executive director of Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. "He would not be Lance Armstrong without the drugging that allowed him to win the Tour de France so many times."
He made a difference
Many involved with cancer, though, are more sympathetic. They've always believed that winning all those yellow jerseys paled in comparison to Armstrong's larger achievement of making the disease part of the national discussion.
"Titles come and go, but in the end what's important is who you are and what difference you have made in the lives of people," said Jim Bouquin, president of the Cancer Support Community's Walnut Creek-based affiliate. "Like most of us, Lance seems to have a capacity to do some good things and also get off track. But he has done more than anyone to help people with cancer."
Dr. Caroline Hastings of the Children's Hospital Oakland agreed with that sentiment.
"He shared with people the pain, the fear, the unknowing, and facing his own mortality," said Hastings, a pediatric hematologist-oncologist. "Regardless of what he says, he will remain in the hearts of many people for what he's done helping people get through their cancer experience."
Athletes often come back from injuries or illness. But Armstrong came back from the deathbed. In 1996, his cancer had spread to his brain and lungs. After surgery and chemotherapy, he was cancer-free the next year.
By 1999, he was winning the first of seven consecutive Tour titles. The race is considered one of the world's most grueling athletic events -- a three-week, lung-bursting ordeal. Yet Armstrong made it look easy with dominating efforts that ended with him casually riding along the tree-lined Champs-Elysees in Paris, hoisting a glass of victory Champagne.
Those victories elevated Armstrong into an iconic symbol of hope. Millions wore his yellow Livestrong wristbands as a way of showing solidarity with loved ones with the disease. According to the Livestrong website, the foundation has raised more than $500 million in its 15-year history, helping 2.5 million people affected by the disease.
"Because Lance was so public about his experience, it made it easier for others," Bouquin said. "It wasn't all that long ago that people didn't talk about cancer because there was a stigma. Lance not only helped bring the disease out of the closet, but he talked about how cancer changes us all. He said: 'I am a cancer survivor and this is who I am,' and that resonated strongly."
Lane, 38, underscores the deep connection cancer patients have to Armstrong. Reading the cyclist's best-selling autobiography, "It's Not About the Bike," made him feel like he wasn't alone.
"He's the one who got testicular cancer out there to let everybody know it's treatable," said Lane, who shared the same oncologist with Armstrong and has been in remission for seven years.
Apology won't help
Armstrong had another side that drew detractors, though. He harshly denounced anyone who accused him of doping, hired high-priced lawyers to fight charges and enlisted the help of lawmakers to go after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which oversees the American Olympic sports drug-testing program.
His defense finally was shattered with the agency's 1,000-page report that said the cyclist was the ringleader of the "most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen."
The allegations didn't surprise top Bay Area cyclist Ben Jacques-Maynes, who won't readily accept an apology from Armstrong.
"The damage has already been done," the Watsonville pro said. "He's already won his millions and stolen results from clean athletes and now he wants back into the game. I can't abide by that."
Armstrong's admissions during the Winfrey interview, which will air over two nights, also could lead to legal trouble. For example, the Justice Department could join a whistle-blower suit that accuses Armstrong of defrauding the U.S. Postal Service, which once sponsored his Sausalito-based team.
Winfrey, appearing Tuesday on "CBS This Morning," declined to reveal specifics of the interview, adding, "He did not come clean in the manner I was expecting."
Whatever is said, Lane chooses to see the positive in Armstrong. That's why he still wears his Livestrong wristband.
"I couldn't say he's no longer my hero because he's still an inspiration," Lane said. "I'm here today a lot because of him."