Olympic swimmer wouldn’t let cancer dash his dream

Sep 08, 2010

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN)  — For Olympic swimmer Eric Shanteau, the last two months have been a whirlwind. “Full of the best moments and the scariest moments of my life,” says the 24-year-old Olympic swimmer.
Eric Shanteau said he felt angry when he found out he had testicular cancer.

Eric Shanteau said he felt angry when he found out he had testicular cancer.

Eric Shanteau said he felt angry when he found out he had testicular cancer.

“Getting to the Olympics was, has always been, my swimming dream since I was 8 or 9 years old. You know, right after I started swimming it was, ‘I want to make an Olympic team. That’s where I want to be’.”

In June, a week before the qualifying round of the Olympics he was told he had testicular cancer. “My initial reaction was probably anger more than anything else,” he says. “I’m used to being in control of everything. I’m in control of how I train, how I race and then to all of a sudden have that control ripped away from me was tough.”

After weeks of tests to determine the “stage” or spread of the cancer, Shanteau’s team of doctors cleared him to compete in the Beijing Olympics, which meant carefully monitoring his tumor but delaying treatment. Though putting off the surgery was controversial to some, Eric says it was an educated choice based on numerous doctor evaluations. “I hope people understand that if I was in a different position with my test results, then I wouldn’t have put off having surgery.” Video Dr. Sanjay Gupta reports from Eric Shanteau’s surgery »

He swam a personal best in the 200 meter breaststroke. He did not qualify for the finals.

Cancer was a motivator, he says, because he knew it meant he could be facing his last competition. He put everything he had into that heat. “Leave it all in the pool, and I don’t look back and regret anything as far as how I raced.”

Once back from Beijing, Shanteau invited CNN to spend time with him the night before his surgery in Atlanta, Georgia. Though admittedly a little scared, he spent the evening relaxing with his family, cooking dinner, walking the dog.
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    * Olympic swimmer battles testicular cancer

A source of inspiration, he says, were fans who shared their stories of beating cancer.

“They send me their story and it helps me to learn that people are going through the same thing I am all over the world,” says Shanteau. “They all affect me in a different way and it’s been really encouraging to share in this experience with other people.”

Testicular cancer is diagnosed in about 1 in 300 men in their lifetime. It is the most common form of cancer for 15- to 34-year-olds. It is also one of the most curable if discovered early. Nearly 140,000 men in the United States are testicular cancer survivors.

Shanteau says he experienced no symptoms of cancer and came across the tumor by chance. “I’ve been in a Speedo half my life,” he says. “So I am really comfortable with my body. One day I just felt something that wasn’t suppose to be there. I decided to go and get it checked out.”

He adds that although he had the “greatest excuse in the world” — an Olympic dream — to ignore the lump, he understood the importance of early detection. Shanteau’s father Rick, is battling lung cancer and responding well to treatment.

“A lot of guys, if they hear a rattle in their car, they’re at the mechanic the next day,” he says. “But if they feel something [physically] that they don’t think should be there, it takes them a year to get to their doctor and that just is not smart. There’s really no excuse, because it can save your life.”

Fast forward to Shanteau’s recent operation at Emory University Hospital. CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta was with Shanteau during the surgery and spoke with the lead surgeon, Dr. Jeff Carney, moments afterward.

“I think the operation went very well,” Carney said. “Eric’s a very healthy young man, very thin, in excellent shape. That makes my job easy.”

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