Swimmer Shanteau Fights Off Cancer While Father Is Terminally Ill
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
ATLANTA -- The lack of finality has been the most difficult thing for swimmer Eric Shanteau. Two days after the close of the Olympic Games in Beijing, doctors removed the malignant tumor in his testicle. They pronounced him cancer-free, but Shanteau did not feel free at all. He left the hospital with a two-inch scar on his abdomen and orders to return every two months for follow-up tests.
On the surface, Shanteau, who had testicular cancer diagnosed a week before the Olympic trials in June, looks great. He is fit, often smiling, and swimming fast. He won two silver medals at the U.S. short-course national championships in early December. But as Shanteau sat on metal bleachers hours before one of his races, talking about what he had beaten and what remains ahead, his voice occasionally quavered. He described the months since he finished 10th overall in the 200-meter breast stroke at the Olympics as "very hard."
"I'm on a surveillance plan right now," he said. "It's obviously always on my mind. I know this will change with time and over time, but whenever something feels a little off, whenever I get sick, it's: 'Oh, is it the cancer? Is the cancer coming back?' That's been hard to accept and deal with. There is a chance of a recurrence. It's small, but it's still there."
The disturbing ruminations are difficult to stop. Shanteau elected to bypass a preventive round of post-surgical chemotherapy, a decision some in his family disagreed with, after getting different recommendations from doctors. Instead, Shanteau undergoes a blood screen every two months and a CAT scan every four. In between, he submits his body to full-bore daily training sessions in Austin under acclaimed coach Eddie Reese, with the 2009 world championships in Rome his next big goal.
Each exam is followed by the two- to three-day interval Shanteau already has come to detest: The wait for the results. As the years go on, the number of months between repeat tests will grow, assuming Shanteau remains cancer-free.
"You just kind of live test-to-test," Shanteau said. "It's nerve-racking. [After a good result], six weeks later you're all nervous again. . . . No matter how much the doctor tells you you're going to be all right, there is a little voice in your head telling you, 'You may not be.' "
Adding to the emotional toll is the health of Shanteau's father, Rick, who learned about a year before his son's diagnosis that he had terminal lung cancer. Rick Shanteau, a former Fannie Mae executive, timed his chemotherapy treatments to allow him to travel to the August Olympic Games with his wife, Janet, son Ryan and daughter-in-law. But the trip was not easy. Rick Shanteau ventured out of his hotel room only every other day, Janet Shanteau said. By the end of the trip, he became ill, she said. Recently, he began a new round of chemotherapy.
"It's been a very, very tough two years," Janet Shanteau, an English professor at a community college, said by phone from the family's home outside of Atlanta. "Our whole lives are nothing but scans and blood work. That's how we've been living."
But at least Rick Shanteau, 61, will be with the family this Christmas. For a time, Janet Shanteau said, that was in doubt.
"He can't be cured," Janet Shanteau said. "He is terminally ill. We are chasing time, that's all we are doing. We try something, then we try something else, and we try something else. There have been some really dark moments."
The outlook for Eric Shanteau, 25, seems far less bleak but no less uncertain. Most common among men between the ages of 15 and 35, testicular cancer has one of the highest cure rates of all cancers: better than 90 percent. But the prospects of success, Janet Shanteau said, could have increased with a round of chemotherapy, a taxing form of treatment that can cause nausea, vomiting, hair loss and other side effects. So far, though, Shanteau has received only good news. He said he received a thumbs-up after blood tests conducted just before Thanksgiving.
He knows he has come a long way from June 17, the day a urologist pored over the results of an ultrasound and offered a likely explanation for the tiny lump Shanteau had discovered about a week before. "I'm telling you right now," the urologist said. "I'm leaning toward cancer, not a benign cyst."