Inspirations of Lance

    Cancer is a funny illness that comes in all shapes and sizes, sometimes better or worse. Sometimes a short fight, sometimes a long fight. The key word is fight. I must encourage you to always keep the faith. The faith in your doctors, the faith in the medicine, the faith in your family, and most importantly the faith in yourself. This, my friend, is absolutely the best thing you can do for yourself. Your strength gives so many others hope and inspiration, including myself. I returned to professional cycling because of people like you, cancer patients who want to live forever and fight like crazy. Thank you and hang in there.

    -- Lance Armstrong

By Brian Triplett

Inspiration. Such a powerful word, yet so vague. So meaningful, yet impossible to define its precise meaning. It typically travels from the eyes or the ears to the heart. Sometimes, it is delivered in the mail.

They're busy at the Lance Armstrong Foundation in Austin, Texas. Some 75 letters and e-mails arrive at the office building each day as Armstrong nears an unprecedented sixth consecutive victory in the Tour de France.

It's his triumph over testicular cancer, however, that gives people hope. His can't-beat-me attitude is what stirs others to keep up their fight.

Armstrong not only survived cancer, he became the best in the world at what he does. As his legend has grown in sports and beyond, so has his Lance Armstrong Foundation. From a three-story house to a large office building. From only a handful of employees to 45 staff members and hundreds of volunteers.

The foundation is an advocacy group. An educational center. A public health forum. A research program.

And a conduit for correspondence from those who want to share their stories of inspiration from Lance.

Some are typed. Others handwritten. Some come from cancer survivors. Some from those who aren't sure if they will survive. Some from children or parents. Some from spouses or friends. From all over the country. From the other side of the world. Some call themselves fans of Lance the cyclist. All call him their hero.

Some ask for an autograph. Most just want to say, "Thank you."

"Even with the influx of mail that we get, it's impossible not to be affected by it," said Michelle Milford, who sorts through the correspondence that arrives year round.

Lance inspires the letters, but he's also inspired by them.

As well as the letters, six million yellow bracelets have been distributed to raise money for the foundation this year, with the words "LIVE STRONG," a play both on Armstrong's name and spirit, inscribed on the band.

"He's definitely humbled," said Bianca Bellavia, a director at the foundation since 1999. "I think it becomes a motivating factor for him. He's often said he thinks of all those people who are undergoing therapy and treatment for cancer when he's on those mountain stages."

Since his diagnosis he's racked up an unprecedented six straight Tour de France victories.

The following are stories of people who were inspired to write to Armstrong.

If it weren't for Lance Armstrong, Joshua Hammer never would have been born.

Bob Hammer was diagnosed with testicular cancer in October of 1999. To help him cope with his illness, he became involved with the Lance Armstrong Foundation and helped to raise more than $12,000 for cancer research.

Twenty-six rounds of chemotherapy cost him the hair on his head, but he wasn't going to let it prevent him from attending a dinner in April of 2001, a week before he was to have surgery that would keep him and his wife Kim from ever having a second child.

At the dinner, Hammer met a pair of men who survived the same type of testicular cancer without having the surgery. He was then introduced to Dr. Craig Nichols, Lance Armstrong's doctor, who offered to review Hammer's medical records.

Less than 24 hours before Hammer's scheduled surgery, Dr. Nichols consulted with Hammer's doctor and the two concluded that surgery wasn't necessary.

A little more than a year later, the Hammers found out a baby boy was on the way.

"I would like to submit my name and a picture of my son to the Wear Yellow/LiveStrong campaign," Hammer wrote in his letter to Armstrong. "We just celebrated the 1 year birthday of our son Josh."

He's Lance Armstrong's miracle baby, Hammer said, and he would not be here if it were not for the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

When Stefanie London arrived at Barnes Medical Center in St. Louis for brain surgery, something was missing.

As a cyclist, she had become a Lance Armstrong fan, and was headed into the hospital as Armstrong was midway through this year's Tour de France. While flipping through the channels on her television, London noticed that the hospital didn't carry the Outdoor Life Network, which airs live coverage of the race.

As she headed into surgery, her husband Steve went to the information desk with the hope of arranging to get the station on his wife's TV. After bouncing from one department to another, Steve eventually found the man in charge of the TV channels at the hospital.

In order to get OLN, another channel had to be switched off, so Steve figured no one would miss the Spike channel.

As Stefanie awoke from her surgery, Steve flipped the television on to the Tour de France for his wife.

"Did it improve my recovery?" Stefanie wrote in her letter to the foundation. "Well I had surgery on Wednesday, July 7 ... and am home by 2 p.m. on Saturday, July 10th! … Knowing I could watch Lance all day, every day definitely brightened my spirits!"

Little did Steve know, not only was the channel now available in Stefanie's room, but all over the hospital.

"Doctors and nurses were thrilled and surprised to find the race on TV in the hospital rooms, and I was proud to tell them that my wonderful husband was responsible for the improvement in the TV selections," Stefanie wrote.

The night before Gregory Garcia left for the hospital in June 2003, Nico De Wee made a promise to his friend. Not only would Garcia survive his cancer, the two would ride up the Alpe d'Huez to follow the course of Lance Armstrong.

De Wee said Garcia was looking for an example of somebody who survived this disease.

"From that moment on, he focused on Lance's example, telling himself that there is a life after his disease and that this cancer would make him even stronger than he ever was before," De Wee wrote in his letter to the foundation from France.

The beginning weeks were a struggle. The chemotherapy was so severe that Garcia risked slipping into a coma at any moment.

As Garcia fixed his eyes on Armstrong's road to his fifth Tour de France, he began to see hope.

Although declared cancer-free in December of 2003, Garcia has still faced health problems.

"Our ascent of the famous Alpe d'Huez will be for later," De Wee wrote.

Barbara Grossman says she is too old to make a wish, but young enough to believe in miracles.

Hospitalized during her battle with cancer, she feared that she would be left alone to think about the daunting battle that she still had to wage. But when they wheeled her into the hospital room in Florida, someone pulled open the blinds to reveal a poster in an adjacent room of Lance Armstrong on his bicycle. It remained a constant source of inspiration for the 64-year-old woman throughout her stay.

"As I lay in my hospital bed last year I spent minutes, hours, weeks and months getting inspiration from your pictures that were in my hospital bone marrow unit," she wrote. "I was wondering if it would be possible to shake your hand and say thank you personally for the inspiration you gave me in fighting this dreaded disease called cancer!"

Like Armstrong, Grossman's cancer is in remission.

It was nearly 2 a.m. when Scott Swimmer noticed that his 15-year-old son's light was still turned on. When he opened the door to his boy's room, he found his son reading "It's Not About the Bike," Lance Armstrong's autobiography.

Mason Swimmer had first read the book as a school assignment, but was reading it that night to find out what awaited him down the road.

A baseball injury had led Swimmer to the doctor's office, where he and his family discovered that he had a tumor on the back of his leg.

Mason had questions, so he turned to Armstrong's book.

His father turned to Armstrong himself.

"Any words or thoughts would be greatly appreciated. We know you've got your hands full and, no doubt, get inundated with requests. Whatever you can say will make a difference."

Since his treatment began in mid-June, Mason has lost weight, lost his hair, but he hasn't lost his hope of recovering.

On a Web site that the hospital provides its patients are read the words of confidence Mason spoke after awakening from surgery.

"This f----- just picked the wrong body..."