Four years ago next week, doctors told breaststroker Eric Shanteau he had testicular cancer.
That diagnosis came one week before the U.S. Olympic swimming trials and less than two months before the 2008 Games opened. In a span of 55 days, Shanteau qualified for the Olympic team, traveled to Beijing, competed in the Games and answered more media questions than he ever imagined while under the microscope of the world media.
And then life became challenging.
"I received so much attention during the diagnosis, which was one of the easier parts of it," Shanteau said. "When I got back from the Olympics and had had the surgery and decided to get back in the pool, that was probably the hardest part of the whole process. It freaked me out a little bit. 'You left it in your body for a couple months -- what if it comes back? What if it comes back worse?'"
Once the Olympics ended and athletes returned home, the world's media forgot all about Shanteau's cancer battle and moved on to more important things, like Kim Kardashian's love life.
"The two months between the trials and the Olympics went by so fast and was such a rollercoaster and such a whirlwind, I didn't have time to stop and think to be honest," Shanteau said. "And when I did have that time, that's when it got a little crazy in my head.
"When all that attention immediately went away after the Games, it was kind of weird. I'm looking for a word to describe it. Maybe 'relaxing,' but it also was, 'Oh wow. That story is over now and it's for me to deal with on my own.' It was relaxing, but it was also, 'Wow, this is all on my shoulders now. I know I have the support out there, so it's up to me to take care of this myself.'"
Shanteau underwent surgery at the end of that August to remove the cancer. Then he began the mental anguish of visiting the doctor every two months, hoping to hear everything was fine, dreading to hear the cancer was back. His medical insurance card, he said, went from collecting dust to the front of his wallet.
Fortunately, the cancer has not returned. He still gets annual checkups, but he said he doesn't live in the fear of cancer. "It's something that you have to get beyond but my body is obviously capable of growing cancerous tumors," he said. "Luckily for me I will be checked for the rest of my life at least once a year. In some ways, that's a little bit reassuring."
And the odd thing is, at age 29, Shanteau has become a better swimmer since the cancer treatment to the point he'll be considered a favorite in the breaststroke at the U.S. trials later this month in Omaha.
"It's crazy. When I came back from cancer, I was 25. I grew another half inch to an inch and put on another 10 pounds of muscle, and dropped all kinds of time," he said. "My first meet back in December of 2008, I went best times in a short-course pool unshaved. I swam faster than I ever had in my collegiate career. Then I broke all my American records, I broke world records. I had cancer and came back faster than before.
"I think a lot of it was the mental aspect -- my outlook on the sport changed. Before it was easy to put a lot of pressure on racing and competing. You go through something like cancer and you go, 'Hey, swimming is not that big of a deal. It's a sport. It should be fun. It should be enjoyed. I choose to do this; I'm not forced to do this.' And racing got a whole lot more fun and it got a whole lot more enjoyable.
"If you're enjoying yourself in your sport and enjoying the competition, you're going to get better."