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Pedaling A Victory Over Cancer

When he won the 1999 Tour de France, American cyclist Lance Armstrong did not just win a major race; he won a battle against testicular cancer.

In 1996 Armstrong was diagnosed with an advanced form of the disease. Doctors in Austin, Texas, also told the 25-year-old the cancer of the reproductive gland had spread throughout his body.

Testicular cancer strikes about 7,500 men in the United States annually and represents just 1 percent of all male cancers. It's a common cancer for men age 15 to 34.

"The good news about testicular cancer is that it's 90 percent curable," observes CBS News Health Contributor Dr. Bernadine Healy.

For Armstrong, like many people with cancer, the first sign of trouble was a painless lump in one testicle. He ignored it for five and half months and thought it was probably irritation from competitive bicycle training.

"I think a lot of us feel, when [we] feel sick - we don't want to go to the doctor and hear bad news," Armstrong told CBS News. "I was no exception. I waited and waited, and the symptoms kept sort of increasing and becoming more frequent."

A hard, tender testicle or a lump - even as small as a pea - can also be a symptom.

After Armstrong's affected area became sore and he began to cough up blood, he went to a doctor - only to receive a frightening diagnosis. "My first reaction was, 'Oh, my God, I have cancer and I'm going to die,'" he says.

As his diagnosis worsened, he sought out the best doctors and decided to believe in their abilities to heal him.

Armstrong underwent surgery to have his right testicle removed and received one round of chemotherapy. Then he was sent to Indiana University Hospital in Indianapolis to Dr. Lawrence Einhorn, a testicular cancer expert.

What Einhorn found was especially ominous - stage three cancer, which means the illness had spread throughout his body. Einhorn estimated that Armstrong had a 50 percent chance of being cured - relatively good odds for someone with stage three cancer.

Twenty-five years ago, such a diagnosis would have led quickly to death. That was before the development of cisplatin, a platinum derivative now standard treatment for many kinds of tumors and especially effective against testicular cancer.

That fall and winter, Armstrong underwent more chemotherapy and continued to ride between treatments. By late December 1996, his chemotherapy was over. Although his blood protein was still high, two months later, it returned to normal. Abnormal growths in his lungs - which may have been scarring - also disappeared.

In April 1997 he was cancer-free a year after treatment - an important milestone for his long-term health.

"When a patient is one year cancer-free after chemotherapy, he has a 95 percent probability of a cure," Einhorn said.

One possible long-term side effect is sterility, however. About half of people with testicular cancer cannot father childrn.

Armstrong's wife Kristin, though, is expecting a child in October, after becoming pregnant with sperm he stored the day before his first cancer treatment in Texas.

Since most people with cancer experience fatigue for months after receiving chemotherapy, Einhorn says Armstrong showed considerable determination with his return to competitive cycling. "To win the Tour de France is mind-boggling. Just to enter is incredible," he says.

Armstrong suggests that people with cancer learn everything about their illness - in the bookstore, on the Internet, through the American Cancer Society or any nonprofit cancer community organization. He suggests they search for the best doctor for them, "believe in the medicine and be brave."

"You have to stay focused on your life. And that's what the therapy can give you,...a second chance at life. It is a tough time, but I hope that I'm a good example for the cancer community."

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