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Cancer survivors voice support for Livestrong foundation

9:06 AM, Oct 18, 2012   |    comments
Lance Armstrong is stepping down as chairman of Livestrong.(Photo: JAIME REINA AFP/Getty Images)
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Many cancer survivors continue to express appreciation for the work of cyclist Lance Armstrong and the foundation he created, Livestrong, even as he announced Wednesday that he was stepping down as the group's chairman.

Armstrong said in a statement that he was stepping down to avoid distracting from the foundation's work, which he credited with helping to "spur a cultural shift in how the world views cancer survivors. This organization, its mission and its supporters are incredibly dear to my heart."

MORE: Lance Armstrong stepping down as chairman of Livestrong

Many Livestrong supporters say they have mixed emotions about Armstrong.

"I am sad about the whole thing, because it puts a shadow on the fine work he did with Livestrong," says lymphoma survivor Jen Singer, 45, of Kinnelon, N.J.

As a mother, Singer says she's not sure how to talk to her children about the doping charges against Armstrong, or the charge that he lied about using performance-enhancing drugs for years. Yet Singer says she will continue to wear Livestrong's signature yellow bracelets, which her friends wore for her while she was in the hospital.

Livestrong, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this month with a star-studded gala -- guests include Sean Penn, Robin Williams and Maria Shriver -- has helped 2.5 million people over the years and raised nearly $500 million. In a statement Wednesday, Armstrong says vice chairman Jeff Garvey will take over as chairman.

Many cancer survivors praise the leadership of Doug Ulman, Livestrong's president and CEO.

Brian Rose, who was uninsured when he was diagnosed with advanced melanoma three years ago, says he owes his health to Livestrong.

"The foundation is not all about Lance," says Rose, 34, who says Livestrong's cancer navigation program helped him get health insurance. "It gives me a feeling of security knowing the foundation is there. It's overwhelming trying to do it all on your own. Having a resource like that is priceless."

Livestrong also helped arrange free flights to a Houston hospital for Rose, who works half the year as a minor-league baseball coach in Wichita, Kan. Livestrong helped Rose with fertility counseling and sperm banking, so that he and his wife can try to have children one day.

Lastly, Livestrong intervened when Rose's insurance company refused to allow him to join a clinical trial. The insurance company reversed its decision and is now covering the cost of the trial, which involves cutting-edge but experimental immune therapy, Rose says.

The treatment seems to be working, Rose says.

"It's literally giving a guy like me a chance to walk away from this disease," says Rose, who appeared in a video for Livestrong. "I just know that when I need it, the foundation will be there."

Breast cancer survivor Lani Horn says she still admires Armstrong's public work, even if the doping allegations are true.

So does cancer survivor and Livestrong volunteer Rebecca Esparza, who says she will continue to volunteer for the group, and refer other patients there for help. Esparza says it was Livestrong's support for Planned Parenthood, however, not Armstrong's doping charges, that made her stop raising money for the foundation.

"It doesn't matter to me if he's guilty or not. He's done more to change the face of cancer than anyone else, ever," says Esparza, of Corpus Christi, Texas. "Livestrong was the first organization I heard of that coined the phrase 'young adult survivor,' which I was in 2001, when I was diagnosed at age 30 with ovarian cancer. Livestrong made other cancer organizations sit up and take notice, revamp and refocus the way they looked at cancer survivorship as a whole."

"Many great heroes are flawed," says Horne, 41, of Nashville. "We may all come to believe that Lance's competitive edge and desire to do the improbable went awry in this instance. However, it was exactly those qualities that helped him think so big and bold with Livestrong."

Beyond raising money, Singer credits Armstrong with championing the issue of cancer "survivorship," or the needs of patients after finishing treatment. Armstrong, who has served on the President's Cancer Panel, has helped raise the profile of survivors' long-term needs, from financial issues and employment to the "late effects" of toxic cancer therapies, which can cause heart failure, infertility and even second cancers.

"It's heartbreaking, but everybody is human," Singer says. "The cancer community will be forever indebted to him for what he has done for us."

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