Shanteau beats cancer, keeps swimming

Shanteau beats cancer, keeps swimming

Published Jun. 7, 2012 1:00 a.m. ET

Eric Shanteau beat cancer. Prepare to hear this — with this particular battle verbiage — a lot in coming weeks. We are, after all, in an Olympic year, and in Shanteau we have a talented American swimmer fighting to qualify for what would be his second Olympics, four years after being diagnosed with testicular cancer.

Shanteau did beat cancer, and that is amazing and heartwarming and inspiring. But just like Michael Phelps' dominance in Beijing has numbed us to how hard qualifying for an Olympics is, let alone winning a medal of any color, how we talk about Shanteau gives off this idea that beating cancer is easy.

If you just live strong, not give up, fight, you can beat cancer just like Shanteau, Lance Armstrong, Saku Koivu, Mark Herzlich, etc. — or so goes the narrative.

It ignores the reality that being famous did not inoculate them from cancer, save them or make the disease any less difficult to overcome. It ignores the reality that Shanteau did not beat cancer so much as he traded punches with it and is still standing.


"It is hard to beat cancer," Shanteau said. "It does not matter what kind or how early it was detected. Cancer is hard."

Here is the truth: Shanteau was scared, lying-awake-at-night-paralyzed-by-fear scared, even as he rocked the Olympics swim trials in Omaha in 2008. He still is sometimes, the day before his every-six-month checks and at random times when the enormity of just what a beast cancer really is hits him.

Those moments are fewer and fewer nowadays. Shanteau was lucky, or as lucky as one with cancer can be. He had one of the better kinds — what an awful phrase to even type — and it was caught early.

"Fortunately, I was in a unique position where I was given a lot of credit and I felt that support," Shanteau said. "But at the same time, there are a lot of people that go through that and do not get the recognition and go through a lot later stages of cancer than I had, and they have a very long fight and a very difficult fight. … That makes for a lot of incredible stories that do not often get told."

There is motivation in Shanteau for sure, just like in Armstrong and every other famous, not-so-famous and only-known-to-their-families person who battles cancer. But not everybody who fights wins. Cancer kills valiant, brave, resilient people every single day in America. And anybody who has beat it has the scars to show for it, where they cut to remove the tumor, where the port went in to administer the chemotherapy, the lines along their eyes from worry, the limbs sometimes amputated or, in the case of Shanteau, the testicle that was removed.

This is cancer. And there is not a damn thing any more inspirational about Shanteau beating it than, say, a 10-year-old girl or an 80-year-old grandmother. I do not diminish what Shanteau overcame by saying this.

This is the truth, and the truth is always more powerful than a whitewashed lie or a yellow bracelet or a pink ribbon. We just know about his story. We saw him four years ago in Omaha bald and brave and swimming what he thought was his last Olympics because he was not going to let cancer take away his dream. He had barely missed qualifying in 2004, failing by a couple of hundredths of a second in the 200 and 400-meter individual medleys.

To see him now, four years later, is proof of just what our bodies are capable of, what we are capable of. He has a full head of hair and his body is primed and ready for the Olympic trials in a couple of weeks, when he hopes to qualify for London. Cancer is not who he is, just this thing he had.

"I am coming up on four years out of diagnosis. I just passed 3 1/2 years cancer-free," Shanteau said. "I go every six months now for surveillance checks, CT scans, blood work and chest X-rays. I had my last ones done in April. They were all clean and clear, and that cleared me for the summer."

This inspiration is in the juxtaposition. If Shanteau could tell somebody recently diagnosed with cancer anything, he would tell them it gets better. You cannot see it right now, he knows. He sure couldn't. But it did. Slowly it became a little less scary and he started to trust his body again and he made choices.

His biggest was deciding to forgo what they call in the business "preventative chemo." The idea is, even if surgery gets all of the cancer with good margins, to blast away any chance of recurrence with chemotherapy.

I am not the first one to note the cure is often worse than the disease, and especially so for Shanteau. The drugs would impact his respiratory capacity — a problem in the pool — and his fertility.

"Depending on the doctor you talk to, I had a 35-40 percent chance of recurrence, and it isn't exactly a low number," Shanteau said. "It was a risk, but again, it was a calculated risk."

What Shanteau does not want is for people to look at him and say, "Oh wow, he's amazing. He beat cancer." He wants them to see proof it gets better. He wants them to know the fight is worth it. He wants them to know whatever their goal — qualifying for London or attending their son's high school graduation — is worth it. He wants them to know he knows it isn't easy, and their stories are every bit as impressive as his.

The amazing part is not that people like Shanteau beat cancer, it is that they fight it without any guarantees. It is giving it everything, knowing you might not win.

"I think for people going through it, the best advice I can give: Take it one step at a time, one day at a time," Shanteau said.

Is this boring? Were you expecting a slogan for a T-shirt?

The truth is swimmers and athletes and famous people lose to cancer, too, because cancer is a bitch to beat. So during this Olympic trials, when Shanteau steps on those blocks, let's celebrate what is really inspiring about him. He reminds us to never quit fighting for what matters to us.