By James B. Kelleher
CHICAGO (Reuters) - A top official with the cancer charity founded by disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong acknowledged on Thursday that the athlete's doping scandal had tarnished its reputation and created "headwinds that were not only stiff but heartbreaking."
But Andy Miller, executive vice president of the Livestrong Foundation, said the group was "bigger than its founder" and insisted its fund-raising and outreach programs for those diagnosed with cancer had not been irreparably damaged by the scandal.
"It's been a difficult year," Miller told the group's annual convention in Chicago.
"I see no reason to avoid talking about that. ... We were deeply disappointed when we learned along with the rest of the world that we had been misled."
Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned for life from cycling in 2012 after anti-doping officials said he had cheated for years.
Armstrong did not appeal the ban, and in January he said the accusations were true in an interview with television host Oprah Winfrey. He had founded Livestrong in 1997 after he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
Miller said the doping scandal was a "moment of enormous opportunity" for Livestrong. "We certainly have people's attention," he said.
"Will the Livestrong Foundation survive? Yes. Absolutely yes. Hell yes. Our work is too meaningful, our role too unique, the need too great to stand for any other answer."
Livestrong volunteers attending the convention reacted to Miller's speech positively, saying it would help the organization turn the page and concentrate again on its mission.
Ashleigh Moore, a 54-year-old cancer survivor and Livestrong volunteer from Adelaide, Australia, said Miller's message was "something we'd been waiting to hear" and predicted the group would now be able to "go forward with renewed energy."
Miller mentioned Armstrong by name four times in a speech that lasted nearly an hour. He alluded to the scandal itself many more times, but said it had not hurt the group's fund-raising.
"We ended 2012 with an impressive revenue number, exactly in line with our peers in the philanthropic community despite a tough economic environment," Miller said.
Tax-exempt nonprofit groups like Livestrong are required to file an annual report, known as a 990, with the Internal Revenue Service detailing funding and expenses for the previous year. Livestrong has not yet filed its 990 for 2012 and does not plan to do so until later this spring, a spokesman said.
Livestrong, headquartered in Austin, Texas, provides free support services to cancer victims and their families. The group says it has raised more than $500 million and served 2.5 million people affected by the disease over the past 16 years.
Armstrong stepped down as a Livestrong board member last fall in an effort, he said, to avoid damaging its fund-raising and programs.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Leslie Adler)