In 1996, at age 25, top cyclist Lance Armstrong was diagnosed with aggressive testicular cancer that had metastasized to his brain and lungs. He recovered after undergoing four rounds of chemotherapy and the surgical removal of his cancerous testicle and two lesions on his brain. Armstrong went on to win the Tour de France a record-setting seven consecutive times from 1999 to 2005.
Lance Armstrong | back to top
Uruguayan Rugby Team | back to top
On October 12, 1972, a plane carrying a team of young rugby players crashed into the remote, snow-peaked Andes. With little warm clothing, small amounts of wine and candy, and the dismembered fuselage for shelter, the group soon realized they were stranded on a barren glacier and believed they'd been forgotten by the outside world.
For ten weeks the survivors suffered severe deprivation and freezing cold temperatures, eventually succumbing to the unthinkable act of cannibalism. Out of forty-five original passengers and crew, only sixteen made it off the mountain alive. Their story was first brought to light by author Piers Paul Read in 1975. In 1993, director Frank Marshall adapted the harrowing tale to the silver screen in the film Alive.
Dr. Jerri Nielsen | back to top
Following a painful divorce and estrangement from her children, physician Jerri Nielsen decided to accept a post as the sole medical officer at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station during the Antarctic winter of 1999. While there, she discovered a lump in her breast and conducted a self-administered biopsy that revealed an aggressive, fast-growing cancer.
Flights are prohibited during the continent's long, dark winter, and Nielsen was forced to administer her own chemotherapy treatment using outdated equipment and meager medical supplies. Her bestselling book, Ice Bound: A Doctor's Incredible Story of Survival at the South Pole, was published in 2001.
John McCain | back to top
On October 26, 1967, during his 23rd air mission, John McCain's plane was shot down over the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. His captors soon learned he was the son of a high-ranking officer in the U.S. Navy and repeatedly offered him early release. McCain refused, not wanting to violate the military code of conduct and knowing that the North Vietnamese would use his release as a powerful piece of propaganda.
McCain spent five and a half years in various prison camps, three and a half of whjch were in solitary confinement. He was repeatedly beaten and tortured until he was eventually released, along with other American POWs in March 1973, two months after the Vietnam cease-fire went into effect. McCain later entered the political arena, becoming the Republican nominee for the 2008 Presidential election.
Joe Simpson | back to top
In 1985, veteran climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates were attempting the first ascent of the Siula Grande peak in the South American Andes when Simpson fell and broke his leg. Yates carried Simpson down the majority of the mountain before disaster struck, leaving Simpson dangling over a steep overhanging ice face. Forced to make a desperate choice, Yates cut the rope, leaving his friend to die on the mountain.
Incredibly, Simpson survived the 50-foot fall and managed to find a way out of the crevasse and crawl down the Siula Grande. Three and a half days later, he reunited with Yates at base camp. Though Yates has been criticized for his actions, Simpson has always supported his partner's decision, believing that cutting the rope actually saved both of their lives. Simpson's book, Touching the Void, was adapted to an award-winning film in 2004.
Christopher Reeve | back to top
In 1995, actor Christopher Reeve was competing in an eventing competition when his horse stalled at a jump, tossing him to the ground. He landed headfirst and crushed his first and second cervical vertebrae. Reeve took advantage of the media coverage to draw attention to spinal cord injuries, fundraising and contributing to what would eventually be known as The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. He also lobbied for expanded federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Though paralyzed from the neck down, Reeve continued to work in Hollywood, winning awards for his directorial debut, HBO's In the Gloaming, and starring in a remake of the Hitchcock classic, Rear Window.
Dith Pran | back to top
In the early 1970s, Dith Pran worked as a local stringer in Cambodia for New York Times correspondent Sidney Schanberg. After the rise of the Khmer Rouge, Schanberg was forced from the country. He was able to secure a safe evacuation for Dith's wife and children, but Dith refused to leave Cambodia, insisting that reporting news of the genocide was the only way to incite an international response.
Dith was eventually sent to the countryside to join millions working as virtual slaves, part of the Khmer Rouge's plan to recreate Cambodia as an agricultural nation. He spent more than four years toiling in the killing fields, during which time two million Cambodians, a third of the population, were killed. He escaped over the Thai border on October 3, 1979. Schanberg's book, The Death and Life of Dith Pran, was made into the award-winning film The Killing Fields in 1984.
John F. Kennedy | back to top
On August 2, 1943, John F. Kennedy was serving as a Navy Lieutenant in charge of nighttime patrol in the Solomon Islands when his boat was sunk by a Japanese destroyer. After 15 hours in the water, the 11 survivors (two men died) swam to the nearest island, with Kennedy towing a wounded man three miles to shore by putting the strap of the man's lifejacket in his teeth.
After no food or water could be found on the island, Kennedy directed his crew to swim to another larger island, again towing the wounded man. With the help of natives, Kennedy was able to secure food, supplies and an eventual rescue on August 8, 1943. After Kennedy was elected president, his heroism became the subject of numerous articles, books and a feature film titled PT 109.
Elie Wiesel | back to top
Elie Wiesel was raised in the Orthodox Jewish faith. At fifteen years old, the Nazis deported his family to Auschwitz. He and his father were immediately separated from his mother and sisters, and he later learned that his mother and youngest sister went straight to the gas chamber. What Wiesel witnessed in the camps (children thrown haphazardly into fire pits, men digging their own graves, his father becoming a helpless child before his eyes) destroyed his faith in God and humanity.
After Buchenwald camp was liberated in April 1945, Wiesel made a vow not to speak of his experience for ten years. In 1955, while working as a journalist, he feverishly recounted his ordeal in Yiddish, which was first published in Buenos Aires. Five years later, under the new name Night, the memoir was published in the United States. It remains one of the most renowned works of Holocaust literature.
Gloria Estefan | back to top
In 1990, while on tour to promote her album, Cuts Both Ways, Gloria Estefan was critically injured when a tractor trailer crashed into her tour bus. Suffering from a fractured spine, she had two titanium rods permanently implanted to stabilize her spinal column. After a year of rehabilitation and extensive physical therapy, Estefan made a complete recovery, returning to the tour ten months after the accident.
Sir Ernest Shackleton | back to top
Though Shackleton led four polar expeditions in his lifetime, he's best known for his failed 1914 Endurance Expedition. The original goal was to cross the Antarctic continent on foot with the help of a secondary party that established supply and fuel depots along the route. The trek was thwarted, however, when the ship Endurance became trapped in the pack ice in the Weddell Sea and destroyed.
Shackleton first led his men to refuge on Elephant Island before crossing 800 miles on foot with five others to South Georgia Island. After reaching land, he fought through miles of extreme terrain to reach a whaling station and employ a rescue ship. After spending 22 months in the unforgiving Antarctic, all 28 crewmembers survived the ordeal.
Alexander Selkirk | back to top
Alexander Selkirk was a young Scottish privateer when he boarded the Cinque Ports in 1704. After the ship was gravely damaged in battle, Selkirk demanded he be left ashore on the closest island, which was the uninhabited Mas a Tierra 400 miles off the coast of Chile. He disembarked with just a few clothes, bedding, a musket, some tools, a Bible and tobacco believing his rescue to be imminent.
Selkirk ended up living on the island for four years, making a life for himself as a castaway amid the island's rats, goats, and cats. He was rescued in 1709 by a British vessel, and he eventually became the master of the very ship that saved him. Selkirk's tale was made famous by the novel Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe in 1719.