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Swimmer: I won’t let cancer ‘live my life for me’

U.S. swimmer Eric Shanteau wasn't just battling the competition at this Olympics — he's also fighting testicular cancer. "I’m going to attack that like I’ve taken on swimming," he says of the disease.
/ Source: TODAY

During an Olympics where the dominant storyline is one man’s quest to win more gold than anyone before him, it is surprising to hear his teammate say he isn’t particularly upset he didn’t make it to the podium at all.

But for Eric Shanteau, who was diagnosed with testicular cancer a week before Olympic Trials, just making it to the semifinals of the 200-meter breaststroke is enough.

“With the whole diagnosis, it made me step back and realize this is a big deal, there are very few people in the world who get to experience this,” Shanteau said. “Making the Olympic team has always been the goal, and I achieved that. Everything else after was just a bonus.”

Shanteau was seventh after prelims, but fell short of the top eight in semifinals despite posting his best time. He finished tenth overall; teammate Scott Spann finished sixth.

“Obviously the initial emotion is a little bit of frustration,” Shanteau said. “But seeing how deep that event was, and it’s the fastest it ever was in history, just being a part of it was an honor.”

Shanteau was a surprise addition to Team USA when he touched out defending Olympic bronze medalist Brendan Hansen to take second in the 200-meter breaststroke at trials. For the 24-year-old Georgia native it was one of the highest highs of his life after being dealt one of the lowest lows just days earlier.

“I was really upset and I got angry when I [was diagnosed],” Shanteau said. “And I had a choice — it could either hurt me or help me, and I made sure it helped me.”

Shanteau kept his medical condition to himself during trials, only opening up to his teammates after the meet. He found all of his teammates 100 percent supportive, even if some expressed that in unusual ways.

“I went up to him and I said, ‘You know what? I don’t care. I don’t care that you have cancer,’ ” said teammate Cullen Jones. “One of the things I’ve learned with my mom having it twice, my grandmother having it, my dad having it — the last thing the person wants is for you to treat them like they can’t do things for them themselves.”

Shanteau agrees you can’t let cancer completely change your life.

“It's one of those things where you wake up and you have choices to make every day. And I can choose to let it control my life or I can choose to not. And I'm choosing to live the way I want to and do the things that I want to do.”

Shanteau’s doctor cleared him to delay treatment until after the Olympics.

“Cancer of the testicle is a very curable cancer, with a cure rate well over 90 percent when it’s caught in the early stage,” said TODAY's Dr. Nancy Snyderman. “Because a tumor in the testicle isn’t going to spread quickly to the other organs, this is one of those times in your life when you weigh the timing of your surgery with the timing of the major event in your life, and it’s OK to put off the surgery for a little while in favor of a major event like the Olympics,” she said.

“If was his mother, I would tell him to swim,” Snyderman added.

Shanteau’s parents have, in fact, been very supportive of his decision to come to Beijing. His father, Rick, told Meredith Vieira on TODAY that postponing the surgery was an "educated decision. We knew it was a calculated risk but a very small risk."

Rick — who is currently fighting his own battle with stage IV lung cancer — told his son he could look at it one of two ways: either you have cancer or cancer has you.

“I don’t think you can put it in any better terms than that,” the swimmer said. “I'm not going to let this disease live my life for me.” To echo this point, Shanteau today showed Meredith his father's grey T-shirt, which was printed with two words: "Cancer sucks."

Although Shanteau did not make it to the medal stand, he is proud to have shown that you don’t have to be defined by cancer.

“I'm up there representing basically the cancer community. And hopefully showing people that there is a fight to do this. You don't have to be afraid of it. You don't have to let this disease control your life.”

Shanteau returns to the States on Aug. 20, and is scheduled for surgery at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., the following week. He is hopeful that will be the end of his cancer battle, and that tests won’t show he needs chemotherapy or radiation.

“But if I do, then so be it,” Shanteau said. “I’m going to attack that like I’ve taken on swimming.”