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Washington Diarist: Survivor

There's still no definitive answer to the question, "What do you give the man who has everything?" But there does appear to be some consensus about what to give the man who has testicular cancer. Which is why last November, after I was diagnosed with the disease, I became the owner of several copies of Lance Armstrong's autobiography, It's Not About the Bike. Armstrong is the poster boy for testicular cancer. He not only survived the disease, he resumed his professional cycling career and has gone on to win a record tying five straight Tour de France titles, his most recent--and narrowest--victory coming this past weekend. Armstrong's phenomenal success, he has said many times, comes not in spite of his illness but because of it. "My first thought when I was going to die," Armstrong once told a reporter, "[was not], I'm gonna be a better bike rider, I'm gonna be a better person, I'm gonna be stronger, I'm gonna be happier. I didn't think about any of that. But that's what's happened."

Even before I started receiving copies of It's Not About the Bike, my doctor--who intuited that the book would likely be coming my way--warned me not to read it. Armstrong, he explained, had a particularly severe case of testicular cancer. Assuming the discomfort he was experiencing in one of his testicles was simply a result of too much time spent on his bike, Armstrong did not bother to get checked out until the testicle had swelled to the size of an orange; by that point the cancer had spread to his lungs, abdomen, and brain, and doctors put his chances of survival at 20 percent. He endured surgery to remove his cancerous testicle, more surgery to remove lesions from his brain, and then four cycles of aggressive chemotherapy--which permanently damaged his kidneys and also left him sterile--before he got better. In contrast, my doctor explained, I had hopefully caught my cancer at an early stage--my testicle, after all, was no bigger than a clementine--and, with any luck, I would undergo a much easier course of treatment. Armstrong's book, my doctor said, would needlessly scare me.

My doctor was right. It's remarkable how quickly and easily my treatment went. I was diagnosed on a Thursday, when an ultrasound showed a growth on my left testicle, which had been bothering me for a few weeks. I had outpatient surgery to remove the testicle the following Monday. And then, the following Friday, I met with my doctor to go over the pathology report. He told me my cancer appeared confined to the testicle that had been removed: I wouldn't need additional surgery; I wouldn't need chemotherapy. He told me I had the option of undergoing a three-week course of radiation treatment, just to be safe in case there were cancer cells in my lymph nodes, and I decided that was a good idea. At the end of my radiation treatments, I was told I should consider myself cancer-free. I will need to be monitored with routine blood tests and CT scans for the next five years to make sure the cancer doesn't recur, but, assuming those tests all come back normal (as they're expected to), I am cured. Even by the standards of testicular cancer--which has a 95 percent cure rate--my case was extremely treatable. The favored term these days for a person who has had cancer and lives to tell about it is "survivor." But, having gone from diagnosis to cure in the span of little more than a week, I can't help but feel that designation may be a little grand for me.

Recently, with Armstrong making headlines, I picked up a copy of It's Not About the Bike that had been gathering dust on my shelf. I'm not sure what I thought my reaction to the book would be, but I was surprised when, a few chapters in, I started to cry. I wasn't as moved by the sections in which Armstrong describes his anxiety before undergoing brain surgery or his intense suffering during chemotherapy. Rather, it was the less dramatic aspects of Armstrong's tale that affected me--and brought me back to that week in November when, as quick and easy as it may seem to me now, I experienced enough fear and anxiety and then relief and elation to last a lifetime.

I felt again the pang of panic Armstrong describes when the ultrasound technician moves the wand up from your groin to your abdomen--which is when you realize that she has found a growth on your testicle and is now checking to determine if the cancer has spread. I recalled the difficulty of even saying the word "cancer" without breaking down when you deliver the bad news to loved ones. I remembered the awe and admiration you feel toward the doctors who treat you and the love and gratitude you have for your family and friends. I was reminded of the profound dread that fills you while you wait to find out how severe your cancer is. And, most importantly, I remembered the euphoric, almost indescribable sense of joy you experience when, if you're one of the lucky ones, the doctor tells you that, after everything you've been through--whether it's one surgery and a week of worrying or multiple surgeries and months of chemo--the test results look normal and you are not sick.

I am a sports fan, but I stopped having sports heroes when I was old enough to realize that athletic accomplishments don't necessarily speak to character. And I'm reluctant to view someone as noble just because, in the face of overwhelming odds, he beat a disease. After all, there are many bad, cowardly people who cheat death and many good, brave people who ultimately succumb. But I couldn't help following Armstrong's performance during this most recent Tour de France--the first Tour since my own bout with cancer--with more than just a casual fan's interest. I know that Armstrong and I have virtually nothing in common. He has a heart that is literally almost one-third larger than that of an average man and can ride the Tour's nearly 3,500 kilometers, through rain and over mountains, at an average speed of more than 40 kilometers per hour; I'm happy if I can run a mile in under eight minutes. He has earned the designation of survivor; I'm not convinced that I deserve it. But, when Armstrong won his fifth straight Tour, I felt a sense of satisfaction and identification I didn't think a person could get from watching a sporting event. Armstrong once said that, when he won the Tour de France, he won for the "cancer community." Now I know what it feels like to be a member.

Jason Zengerle is a senior editor at The New Republic.