Eric Shanteau Reflects on Testicular Cancer Battle

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

The swimming community was shocked to hear of Olympic gold medalist Nathan Adrian’s testicular cancer diagnosis two weeks ago on January 25. Since that time, Adrian has undergone lymph node surgery and has already made a return to the weight room.

It’s been a hectic two weeks for Adrian, who has continued to stay positive through it all. He is on the roster for the Pan American Games and the World Championships teams later on this summer. The World Championships are roughly 23 weeks away and the Pan American Games 26, so Adrian has plenty of time to recover and get back in full strength by the summer.

It would be a completely different story for Adrian if this happened mere weeks before World Championships, or perhaps right before Olympic Trials.

That is what happened to Eric Shanteau in 2008 as he was diagnosed with stage one testicular cancer a week before the Olympic Trials adding on to what it is already a stressful meet in itself.

“It’s interesting because hindsight is always different than what you are going through in the moment. And in terms of it effecting me, you try not to let it to,” Shanteau told Swimming World.

“You try to put blinders on and have your tunnel vision that is focusing on your races at Olympic Trials. I think I was able to do that. I think it gave me a very different perspective very quickly on what we do in the sport of swimming.

“I think a lot of the times when you get to a high level of competition, it becomes the most important thing in the world and it’s really not. There is a big life outside of sports. And this is also me talking that has been retired for seven years. For me it gave me a different perspective on the sport. And I think long term for the four years I continued after my diagnosis, it helped me a lot.”


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Shanteau was able to make the Olympic Team in 2008 despite knowing he had cancer. He finished second in the 200 breaststroke in an upset over then-American Record holder Brendan Hansen.

“The immediate reaction is it’s a dream come true,” Shanteau said. “But then you can’t help but realize that oh wait I’ve done this finally after all these years, especially missing it like I did in 2004, then all of a sudden you realize maybe I’m not even going to get a chance to go.

“So it was a big dose of reality that oh wait I made it but now I try and do everything I can to stay on the team and go compete.”


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

After the Olympic Trials that year, there were roughly six weeks before Shanteau would be set to swim again at the Olympics in Beijing. While all of his other Olympic teammates were 100 percent laser focused on competing in China, Shanteau had to undergo tests to make sure he could still make the trip and swim at the Games.

When he was first diagnosed, Shanteau’s doctors said he could delay treatment and still swim at Olympic Trials. But if he was to make the team, (he was the second seed in the 200 breast coming into the meet), then there was going to be a bunch of bridges that needed to be crossed in order to keep him on the team.

Afterward, Shanteau went on a very intensive modified surveillance plan. For the next six weeks while he was at the training camps, he was having weekly blood tests, CT scans and chest X-rays done to make sure that the tumor they had seen and knew he had was not progressing and that it was not spreading either.

And if everything stayed the same, then he would have been able to stay on the team.

Luckily for Eric, everything did stay the same. And about two weeks before the Olympics, when the U.S. team was set to leave its training camp in Palo Alto for Singapore, Shanteau was cleared to compete for Team USA at the Olympic Games.

“And that was honestly just pure luck. It was nothing that I could control or they could control. My tumor markers weren’t progressing. They didn’t see any new spots in my chest, abdomen or pelvis, so it was just pure luck,” Shanteau said.

Despite swimming the 200 breast in Beijing faster than what he did at Olympic Trials, Shanteau finished in 10th place in the semifinals at the Olympics and did not make the eight man final for the next morning.

Shanteau went in to surgery six days after he got home from Beijing in 2008, and was declared cancer free about three weeks after that in the middle of September.

Fortunately for Shanteau, (and this seems to be the case with Adrian as well) his cancer was caught early. He was only diagnosed with stage one cancer. And with stage one, all he needed was a single surgery. If he had been diagnosed with one of the later stages, it would have been a much longer process.

After being cancer free, there was no question in Shanteau’s mind he would return to the pool and race again. And after beating cancer, Shanteau had a renewed perspective on the sport. The pressures of racing were easier to deal with. And in 2009, he had his best year of swimming yet.


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

He set two new American Records at the World Championship Trials in 2009, rattling the world record in both the 100 and 200 breaststroke in Indianapolis.

Two weeks later at the World Championships in Rome, Shanteau lowered the American Record in the 100 and 200 breaststroke again. He placed fourth in the 100 and won the silver medal in the 200 after getting nipped at the finish by Hungarian Daniel Gyurta.

Shanteau was one of the faces of US breaststroke leading into the 2012 Olympic Trials and was a favorite to make the Olympic Team in the 100 and 200 again, sitting as the top seed headed into the meet in the 200 and fourth seed in the 100.

Shanteau was able to make the team in the 100 breast that year and clinch a spot on the Olympic Team for London, and this time he was able to do it without the cloud of cancer hanging over his head.


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

After he was originally diagnosed cancer free in September 2009, Shanteau had to continue to see doctors on a surveillance plan that would last nine years.

The first year he was getting checked every two months. The second year it was every two months. Then years three, four and five, it was twice a year. And after year five, it is just once a year.

But just when Shanteau’s nine year plan was coming to an end, doctors found a recurrence back in 2017. That required a much more invasive treatment where he did chemo and more surgery. So Shanteau’s clock restarted after that and he is again a year and a half cancer free.

As for Nathan Adrian, Shanteau said did reach out to him after his diagnosis.

Adrian has already undergone surgery to remove some of the lymph nodes that the cancer may have spread to, and has already returned to the gym. So if Adrian is on a similar path that Shanteau was on, then he could be back and better than ever by the summer.

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