Wednesday, 16 January 2013


All this talk of Lance Armstrong has brought back memories of my friend Tracy.  Tracy and I had already been friends for a little while when we found ourselves on a residential course together in the summer of 1998.  During that week, we really bonded over the Tour de France.  We used to rush up to my room at the end of each day to watch the highlights of the day's stage on Channel 4.  It was the year that Marco Pantani won, and we both thrilled at his piratical style as he blew the opposition away on the slopes of the Alps.

A few months after that summer, Tracy was diagnosed with a cancer in her stomach that quickly bloomed into her intestines.  She bravely suffered through several courses of chemotherapy, but by November 1999 she was dead.  She was 31 years old.  The summer of 1999 was the year that Lance Armstrong won his first Tour de France.  As he went on to win year after year, I liked to think that Tracy would have approved.  After all, here was a man who wasn't just beating the other riders and the mountains, this guy was sticking two fingers up to cancer and showing the world what was possible for people who hear that life-changing diagnosis.  I ignored the whispers about him.  I wanted to believe.  The whispers got louder, but I still desperately wanted to believe in this guy and what he represented.  I wore a yellow Livestrong bracelet for years...  mostly in memory of my friend, but also because it felt like a powerful statement of what we can achieve out of adversity.  After my own diagnosis with MS, this suddenly became a personally relevant statement for me too.

He lied to us.  He lied to us all.  For me, it's not about the prize money and endorsements and it's not even really about the careers he ruined along the way.  For me, it comes down to the simple fact that he put himself up as representing something better; something purer.  He was hope.

He lied.  It was all a lie.

I knew he was driven and ruthless, but I thought he was something better than this and I was wrong. And he's ruined Dodgeball.

Anyway.  Here's a post I wrote about my friend Tracy back in 2004.  Lance Armstrong may have proved to be a cheat, but I can still remember my friend.  She was and still is my hero... an ordinary kind of heroism, perhaps... after all, she never cycled over any mountains... but the way she kept smiling in those last months will stay with me forever.  I make no apology for republishing this in full as I still think of her all the time.

En danseuse jusqu'au sommet...

I was thinking about my friend Tracy this afternoon.

Tracy and I joined the same company as graduates in 1997. Tracy went into the marketing department and I went into IT. We didn't work together much, but bonded over the Tour de France during a residential "skilled communicator" course, and saw each other fairly regularly on other courses and on nights out and so on (most of the other graduates had joined directly from University - both Tracy and I had not). Towards the back end of 1998 we started to see a lot more of each other, as we began working in the same building and would often pop out for lunch, or to have a coffee.

Tracy was a bright, intelligent and active girl - seriously into her climbing and hiking - but she did worry about her weight. She was by no means fat - think Bridget Jones and you won't be far off. She was a very pretty, vibrant blonde girl with a very cheerful and upbeat personlity. For a fairly dour person like me, being with someone so upbeat was great. Anyway, her weight worried her, and so like millions of women before her, she joined weightwatchers and began to count her points. One day over coffee, Tracy told me how she was finding it hard to eat much food without feeling queasy. About the only things she could keep down were cheese, sweets and chocolate. Strange. This went on for a couple of months, and Tracy began to win "slimmer of the week" prizes at weightwatchers in spite of her odd diet. The doctor was little help. He was convinced nothing was wrong - perhaps an ulcer at worst. One day in March, Tracy told me that she had finally persuaded her doctor to refer her to Queens Medical in Nottingham for an endoscopy.

She attended her appointment, and was immediately admitted to the hospital on a drip as she was so dehydrated that they were unable to put the tube down her throat. A few days later she was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and a few days after that we found out that the cancer had bloomed into her intestines. Over the next few months she had 2 courses of chemotherapy, and although she was chipper (she loved showing off her wig), it made her very, very sick. In late summer we attended her 31st Birthday at her mum and dad's house (she had moved back in) and had a fantastic afternoon with jelly, angel cake and a bouncy castle.

It was about this time that I started going out with C. (who had also joined the company as a gratuate in the marketing department in 1997, and so was also a friend of Tracy). Tracy was thrilled when she heard the news (it was considered worthy of gossip at the time, you know...), and we began to go and see her together. She admired my Yoda t-shirt, so I bought her one. Seeing her wearing it though was to realise how small and emaciated she had become.

At the end of October 1999, Tracy was too ill to complete her second course of chemotherapy. Her target, she told me, was to make it to Bonfire night (November 5th).

She died on November 4th.

I'm not telling you this story to depress you, but because I still find myself thinking about Tracy all the time. She was the first person of my own age, someone I was friends with, to die, and it has had a big effect on me.

The funeral was terrible. We were all asked to wear a touch of purple, as this had been her favourite colour. When we arrived though, it was clear that nobody had told Tracy's boyfriend (of many years' standing) or the rest of his family, so they had simply turned up in black (as you do). It turns out that since Tracy had died, her parents had fallen out with him over pointless, stupid, trivial things and had cut him off. His wretched, choking sobs as he walked out at the end of the service were (and remain) the most heart-breaking thing I have ever heard. For some reason C. and I got separated at this point, with me going for coffee with some mutual friends to share our sadness, and C. getting swept away to Tracy's house for the after-funeral do with the family. I felt awful and I felt alone. C. was away for hours, and all I wanted was a cuddle.

When she got back though, I heard that all the time she had spent with Tracy's family had been spent with Tracy's mum slagging off the boyfriend (who had not been invited). Poor Gav was not allowed to take Tracy's ashes and scatter them from the top of her favourite peak, and had basically been erased from history as far as Tracy's family were concerned. As far as I know, they never spoke to him again. I can only imagine how much harder this must have made his grief.

She's been dead now for over 5 years, and I found myself thinking about her this afternoon as I walked between meetings in the rain. I think I'm going to get hold of one of those Lance Armstrong Yellow wristbands and wear it in her honour. Seems apt.

Life's so short, and so precious. If you've got a significant other, give them a big hug when you next see them.

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