“Madder than a cat” is the way Linda Armstrong Kelly describes how she felt when she learned her son Lance had cancer at age 25. Pregnant at 16 and divorced at 19, the petite blonde Texan worked multiple jobs to help her son realize his dream of becoming a professional cyclist. But in 1996, just as his career was beginning to take off, he was diagnosed with metastatic testicular cancer.
“All my life, my number-one fear had been losing my job,” she says. “But suddenly my most important job was being his caregiver.”
Minutes before addressing a room of 350 cancer survivors and caregivers at Vanderbilt University’s Survivors Conference, Linda talked to Spry about the experience of supporting her son through cancer and beyond.
Spry: What was it like as a parent to help your child navigate cancer?
Linda Armstrong Kelly: It was an emotional rollercoaster. I didn’t want him to see me upset. Even when he was a little boy, I always wanted to be positive. When he was going through the cancer, I would cry at night, and wake up and cry in the morning. But he never saw it.
Spry: How did you approach helping Lance make decisions about his treatment?
LAK: Lance was practically a grown man when he was diagnosed. But he was still my child. You know, moms have this amazing experience—we go with our feelings. But as badly as I wanted it to be, they weren’t my decisions to make. It was really a team effort, just trying to figure out all the advice, the direction we wanted to go. There was never any confrontation. It was a journey that took us from one thing to the next. Ultimately, we found the right solution.
Spry: Was there a particularly hard choice to make?
LAK: When we heard his cancer was Stage 4, and that it had spread to his lungs, and then his brain, the treatment options were very aggressive. One of [the prescribed chemotherapy drugs] bleomycin, will damage your lungs. We were looking for a treatment that would spare his lungs, because he wanted to ride a bike for a living. We ended up in a clinical trial [for a different chemo regimen]—we’re risk takers. (laughs) But it was his decision.
Spry: Where did you turn for support?
LAK: Back then, the Internet was not what it is today. But we took comfort in all the letters, cards and phone calls from friends. We got letters from all over the country, from people sharing their experiences. One of them was Dr. Steven Wolff from Vanderbilt, who gave us a lot of advice.
Spry: Did you ever imagine the Lance Armstrong Foundation would grow into something so big?
LAK: Not at all. It went from small to state to national to international. But it was his mission to get people information. He has always been a kind and compassionate young man.
Spry: Do you think he ever wishes he could just be “Lance Armstrong, Tour de France champion” and not “Lance Armstrong, Cancer Survivor”?
LAK: Absolutely not. Lance will tell you cancer is the best thing that ever happened to him. When you’re young you think you’re invincible. Cancer survivors get up every day and put their feet on the ground and think, “What can I do today?” Life gives us setbacks. But lying in that bed, being sick, he thought, “Nothing will ever be as hard as what I’m going through now.”
That’s why what Vanderbilt does with the Reach for Survivorship program is so important. It helps prepare survivors for what’s next – that’s a journey as well.
Spry: What’s the most important piece of advice you have for caregivers?
LAK: The number-one thing I always come back to is the message to never give up. I have always been a glass half-full person, but when you have any setback, especially cancer, attitude is always first and foremost. We don’t want to give up.