In the span of just three days this past August, newspaper headlines were
dominated by two men who shared the same All-American surname. The proximity of
Lance Armstrong’s refusal to dispute allegations that he used performance-enhancing drugs and the death of Neil Armstrong drove office banter around the
world to “compare and contrast exercises” that alternated between the profound
and the cynical.
Who was the greater hero? Was it more impressive to be
the first winner of the space-race or a seven-time winner of the Tour de France?
Whose quest offered a more inspiring example of hope? Did the greater impact on
mankind arise from the astronaut’s iconic small steps or the athlete’s big-time
pedaling? And just who really wore the dorkier helmet?
That was the public
debate. In the oncology wards where I work, the conversation focused exclusively
on the erstwhile champion cyclist and perennial cancer survivor. My
people needed to vent about Lance.
Although oncology is a field
predicated on statistics, it is impossible to quantify how much Lance Armstrong,
thrice-recognized as a hero, has meant to cancer patients. First, by
persevering through an aggressive regimen of surgery and chemotherapy, he
famously overcame an advanced tumor that had spread to his lungs and
brain. Then, only after beating cancer, he repeatedly emerged victorious
in one of the most grueling sporting events. And as an ongoing finale, he
erected a fund that has distributed approximately half a billion dollars to
foster cancer research.
Armstrong thus defined the concept of the
“triple-threat” for sports fans, and really all human beings. For cancer
patients, his fall from grace was beyond disillusioning. It was devastating. One
patient came in for a routine follow-up visit after the news broke and cried,
“It’s not just that my bubble burst. A part of me died.”
deserves to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise. Maybe Doug
Ulman, the CEO of Armstrong’s Livestrong Foundation, does more than put a
positive spin on a media release when he boasts that his organization continues
to raise record sums of money and that, “The best thing about this outcome is
that we can now move forward without any distraction.” It’s hard, though, not to
be distracted when the ultimate competitor forgoes a fight. In choosing to be
quiet and, moreover, by deciding to quit, there appears to be an admission of
After all, we’re talking about Lance Armstrong! Another of my
patients, a 57- year-old woman who defines herself less as a breast cancer
survivor than as a solution-oriented person, offered a novel suggestion during
an informal support group that I lead every week. Referring to the repentance
ritual popular during the Jewish High Holidays, she proposed that “Lance
Armstrong should try teshuvah.”
An older man quickly countered with
skepticism, “It won’t work.”
His doubt, he emphasized, stemmed not from
Armstrong’s being an avowed atheist but from the fact that teshuvah, or
repentance, requires (according to Maimonides) resisting the types of temptation
that initially lead us astray. With the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) having
banned Armstrong for life from participating in “elite-level” sporting events,
the athlete has no opportunity to face his temptations, so he cannot achieve
Our group didn’t feel like prolonging this debate, but the
discussion compelled me to think some more about teshuvah. USADA has indeed
prevented us from applying an outcomes measure to Armstrong’s teshuvah. But the
journey of teshuvah, the process, begins in an entirely different
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz points out that teshuvah – which is
metaphorically characterized as taking a road back – is more than repentance
from sin. It is a spiritual re-awakening. And for such mystical arousal
to take place we must acknowledge past mistakes and resolve to adopt a better
path that is more aligned with the core values that we have abandoned. Put
concretely, teshuvah is then a change of direction that begins with an
about-face, a “return,” that is never easy.
After three decades as a
practicing oncologist, I still marvel at my patients’ abilities to make
difficult changes of direction, irrespective of age or the “baggage” they
carry. Patients often adopt new perspectives that enable them to overcome
obstacles of spiritual inertia and to grow as human beings.
Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Nizikin; Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter IV: Mishnah
1), the Second Century sage Ben Zoma alludes to such feats by asking, “Who is
the true hero?” The response is: “One who conquers his own
True heroism emerges, then, when we subdue our instincts and
modify our behavior. Surely that behavior modification can occur despite USADA’s
ruling against Armstrong’s return to conditions of original
That being so, Lance Armstrong now has a remarkable
opportunity to become a hero for the fourth time. This would entail
acknowledging personal flaws and perhaps initiating frank dialogue on
shortcomings within a professional sport where dozens of participants now
confess to doping in order just to “keep up” with their rivals.
disclosure by Armstrong will not be easy but could be the first phase of one
more comeback that would surely inspire others to do their own heroic
soul-searching. While Armstrong will never again stand on the medal
podium, he could still have a platform.
Lance Armstrong cannot be coerced
to do teshuvah. For Armstrong, like anybody else, teshuvah will be activated
only if his silence morphs into a disquieting awareness that prods him. One
thing, though, is certain. Should Armstrong hearken to an inner calling to
pursue that path, he will also hear a multitude of cheering cancer patients
urging him to steer sharply towards a spiritual finish line that might actually
be located behind him. Sometimes a small step backwards can be a giant
The author is professor and chairman of the Institute of
Radiotherapy at Tel Aviv Medical Center and cofounder of the NGO Life’s Door.
Earlier this year, he was awarded the Israeli Citation for Volunteerism by
President Shimon Peres.