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Cancer Couldn't Crush Eric Shanteau's Olympic Dream

by Laura Shipp


(photo by TYR)

As history was made in the Water Cube at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, a few inspiring stories held the nation’s attention: Michael Phelps’ record-breaking eight gold medal wins, Dara Torres’ silver-medal sprint as the oldest Olympic swimming medalist in history, and of course, Eric Shanteau reaching his Olympic dream despite a diagnosis of testicular cancer.

“I learned to swim when I was three years old,” says the 24-year-old Olympic swimmer during a recent interview with Coping®. “By the time I was nine or ten, I was thinking about swimming in the Olympics.”

After narrowly missing out on the 2004 Games in Athens, Eric rigorously trained four long years for a second chance at realizing his Olympic dream. A chance that might not come again in the fiercely competitive world of Olympic swimming. With his lifelong dream within reach, nothing could blur his focus. Enter cancer.

“Cancer is one of those things that can control your life if you let it.”

One week before the Olympic trials, Eric was diagnosed with testicular cancer. His immediate reaction “was anger and frustration,” he says. “The questions of ‘why me?’ and ‘why now?’ ran through my head.” He quickly learned that he couldn’t control cancer’s timing.

His doctors cleared him to compete in the trials, and despite being the underdog, Eric finished second in the 200-meter breaststroke, beating out former world-record holder and heavy favorite Brendan Hansen to secure his spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Eric now had a difficult decision: go for his Olympic dream or have immediate surgery and give up on competing in Beijing.

Advice from his father, Rick, a lung cancer survivor, may have helped Eric make that decision. He says one of the first things his dad told him was “You have cancer. It doesn’t have you.” Eric reflects on his father’s counsel. “Cancer is one of those things that can control your life if you let it,” he says. “If you sit around and think about it and feel sorry for yourself, it can keep you from doing the things that you want to do. But if you decide to take ownership of it and take control of it, then you can go on living your life.”

And that’s what Eric did. After careful consideration and consultation with a team of experts, Eric decided to chase his Olympic dream. Luckily, his cancer was found early, allowing him to monitor the disease with a battery of weekly tests and to keep his Olympic dream alive.

He is quick to point out, however, that he didn’t make this decision lightly. “I only put off surgery because I was being closely monitored,” he says. “I was under very, very close observation, and if anything had changed, I obviously would have pulled out of the Olympics and taken care of my health. I don’t want anyone to look at my situation and think that it is okay to put off dealing with cancer. I was dealing with it the whole time, being tested and being monitored.”

Eric Shanteau’s Olympic experience did not end with a medal, but he says he is grateful just for the chance to compete. After Beijing, Eric returned to Atlanta for surgery to remove the cancerous testicle. Doctors are still monitoring his disease to determine if more treatment, such as chemo, will be needed.

With surgery behind him, Eric has returned to the water. For now, his focus is on the 2009 World Championship in Rome. But he hasn’t completely ruled out the possibility of the 2012 London Olympic Games. He’s taking it day by day, he says.

London or no London, Eric Shanteau is, and always will be, an Olympian. Along with that distinction, he carries another title: cancer survivor. “Whether you want to admit it or not, cancer gives you a new identity,” he says. “I have gotten tagged with the ‘cancer card,’ and I know that I will carry that identity for the rest of my life. But I am okay with that, just as long as it is not the single thing that identifies me.”

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For more information on Eric Shanteau, visit www.ericshanteau.net.

Because some types of cancer (including testicular cancer) and cancer treatment can cause infertility in men, Eric opted for sperm banking. He says, “I definitely have plans for a family in the future, and it is nice to have that reassurance.” To learn how cancer may affect your fertility and for more information about family planning, visit www.fertilehope.org.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2008.