Sports

James Burns: LIVESTRONG -- Words to live by

James Burns, sports editor
James Burns, sports editor

The questions will sustain Lance Armstrong's legacy long after he retires. And stays retired. How did he do it -- beat cancer and then win a string of Tour de France titles? What makes him so good, so untouchable on two wheels?

Today, we'll find out.

Lance's comeback trail leads through Merced this morning. It's Stage 4 of the Amgen Tour of California --- America's premier cycling event -- and today's showcase will be held in our own backyard.

The land of milk and honey and almonds, open ag land, rolling hills and mountain climbs.

City officials and race organizers expect that thousands will line the course from here to Clovis, carrying signs and flags.

Levi Leipheimer, Armstrong's Astana teammate, is the reigning Tour of California champion, but all eyes will be on that blond fellow who won an unprecedented seven Tour de France crowns.

And while you sit there, wondering what greatness will look like in neon spandex and a Power Ranger helmet, I want you to remember this story.

In the fall of 2003, a burly, broad-shouldered truck driver was laid up in a hospital bed at a Sacramento Kaiser.

He looked like Frankenstein resting there, half asleep with wires and electrodes coiling off his arms and chest.

You want to talk about dirty and challenging jobs? This man had delivered steel for 30 years, logging tens of thousands of miles in his 40-foot flatbed tractor-trailer.

"I might not know where I'm going," he'd love to say after a 12-hour work day, "but I always, always know how to get home."

But in this moment, hours before he'd have surgery to remove a softball-sized growth on his brain, he openly wondered to his family how he'd escape this mess.

How he'd ever get home.

He had cancer.

Still does.

To be specific, it is an malignant tumor on the frontal lobe of his brain -- the part that affects the speech patterns.

"I actually knew something was wrong about six months before they diagnosed it," he said, "because I knew what I wanted to say, but it wouldn't come out."

Though his surgery was deemed a success, the long-term prognosis wasn't encouraging.

The cancer was aggressive. It would come back -- without rhyme or reason -- and treatment would never be easy.

Doctors gave him six months to live.

A year, tops.

"They told me when they first took it out, 'Go home and get your life in order,' " he recalled. "They said (this tumor) would end up killing me."

That mountain of a man -- the one with an eight-inch scar splitting the top of his head in half -- is my father, Jim Burns.

And like Lance, he's a cancer survivor, forcing the doctors to re-evaluate and recalculate his life expectancy with every new MRI and checkup.

"I've already beaten the odds four or five times over," my father said. "And I'm going to continue to beat the odds."

His confidence doesn't come from modern medicine, but one tiny band around his left wrist and a faith that could fill a hundred churches.

He begins each day with the same simple routine.

Every morning, before the sun rises, he rolls out of bed, slides his feet into a pair of worn slippers and, without fail, fiddles with the yellow band on his wrist.

He rotates it around and around until he can read Lance's message.

Livestrong.

Lance's campaign has raised millions of dollars in the name of cancer research, but if you're looking for value and purpose and greater good...

Check the crowd around the starting line today. Visit the waiting rooms of your local hospital.

Lance doesn't know it -- or maybe he does -- but every day he trumpets and promotes the Livestrong mission statement, he inspires and empowers cancer survivors around the globe.

Like my father.

There's untold power in those flimsy yellow awareness bands. My father hasn't taken his off in nearly five years.

"Every day when I wake up I see it," he said. "It's routine now to look at my arm and thank God for what he's done for me.

"It means everything to me. It's my hope and my strength.

"It keeps me focused on what I have in my life now. My cancer is going to come back. We just don't know when it's going to. It's already showed its ugly head once.

"Now I'm in a different stage of treatment -- and it's working. I don't know what's coming next, you know, but this band gives me hope that everything is going to be OK."

Today, a city full of curious fans will line the streets and highways of Merced and Mariposa counties, expecting to see greatness from the Tour's signature draw.

The novices will come with their questions: What makes this guy so good on two wheels? What separates him from everybody else in neon spandex and Power Ranger helmets?

Easy.

It's cancer survivors like my father. The ones living strong with Livestrong.

James Burns is sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at jburns@mercedsun-star.com.

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