ATLANTA – Olympic swimmer Eric Shanteau is heading to Beijing with a startling diagnosis: He has cancer.
In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, Shanteau said he learned just a week before the Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb., that he has testicular cancer. His doctors cleared him to compete in that meet and he surprisingly made the team in the 200-meter breaststroke, finishing second ahead of former world-record holder and heavy favorite Brendan Hansen.
"I was sort of like, 'This isn't real. There's no way this is happening to me right now,"' Shanteau said. "You're trying to get ready for the Olympics, and you just get this huge bomb dropped on you."
Luckily for Shanteau, the doctors determined his cancer was treatable and had not spread, so it wouldn't be a risk to compete in the Olympic trials.
Now, Shanteau's putting off surgery until after Beijing because he doesn't want to disrupt his lifelong goal of swimming in the Olympics. The 24-year-old Georgia native will be monitored closely over the next month and vows to withdraw from the team if there's any sign his cancer is spreading.
"If I didn't make the team, the decision would have been easy: Go home and have the surgery," Shanteau said. "I made the team, so I had a hard decision. But, by no means am I being stupid about this."
Shanteau stressed he's not willing to risk his life just to compete in his first Olympics. But, after considering the benefits of immediate treatment, he decided to put off surgery because it would keep him out of the water for at least two weeks, ruining his Beijing preparations.
The cancer was found after Shanteau noticed an abnormality and was finally persuaded by his girlfriend to see a doctor.
At his initial examination, Shanteau was told it was probably nothing more than a benign cyst. But an ultrasound showed the possibility of something more sinister, so he was sent to a specialist. On June 19, exactly one week before he was scheduled to leave for the trials, Shanteau heard that awful word: Cancer.
"It almost numbed me," he said. "I'll remember that day for the rest of my life. Talk about a life-changing experience. That's as big a one as you can have, I think. You're changed for the rest of your life. The few people I've talked to who've gone through this — and they're all much, much older than I am — say I'll know that even more in 10 years."
If everything had gone according to script, Shanteau would have already gone through surgery and be on the road to recovery. But the improbable happened in the 200 breaststroke, where Hansen — considered a lock to make the team — faded badly on the final lap. Scott Spann powered by to win the race, and Shanteau passed Hansen as well to claim the second spot on the team.
"A lot of people kept asking me after that race, 'What was going on? We thought we would get a little more reaction out of you,"' he said. "That kind of made it a little bittersweet. It went well. I made the team. Then I had to go back and deal with reality."
Only a few close friends and family knew about Shanteau's condition before the Olympic trials. He decided to go public with his story because he hopes to inspire others with cancer.
Shanteau didn't tell his agent, Evan Morgenstein, until after he made the team.
"I was in shock," Morgenstein said. "I am still in shock. When a great person like Eric tells you he has bad news, you figure he pulled a muscle or twisted an ankle. This is so hard to understand."
According to the National Cancer Institute, testicular cancer is relatively rare, accounting for 1 percent of male cancer cases in the U.S. It's often diagnosed in younger men. About 8,000 men are diagnosed and 390 die from the disease each year.
The cancer is slow to spread and usually treatable, but follow-up care is extremely important because of the risk of recurrence, the N.C.I. said. Surgery to remove the affected testicle is the most common form of treatment, and a biopsy is performed afterward to determine the exact stage of the illness and any follow-up care that might be necessary.
If untreated, testicular cancer can spread to the lungs or through the kidneys to reach the lymph nodes, drastically reducing the chances of survival.
Shanteau's camp already has heard from the agent of Lance Armstrong, who overcame the same disease and won the Tour de France seven straight times.
"Lance's agent told my coaches that I'm the closest thing to Lance Armstrong that there is on the planet right now," Shanteau said. "If I can have a fraction of the impact that he's had, just a tiny little bit, then I think what I'm going through will be good."
Up to now, Shanteau's biggest international accomplishment was finishing fifth in the 200 breaststroke at last year's world championships in Australia.
He faces long odds to make the medal stand in Beijing, having posted only the ninth-fastest time in the world this year. But Shanteau insists he won't be distracted by the cancer.
"Making the Olympic team was the hard part," he said. "The Olympic Games should fun. I'm not worried about swimming fast there."