It's hard not to admire the courage and composure of 24-year-old Eric Shanteau. A week before the Olympic trials, the swimmer from Lilburn, Ga., received staggering news from his doctor: Shanteau had testicular cancer and needed surgery.
He could have—some doctors have reportedly argued he should have—abandoned his Olympic dreams to aggressively pursue treatment. Instead, Shanteau chose to delay surgery, swam in the trials, and snared himself a spot on the American team with an upset second-place finish.
The world will be watching closely when Shanteau takes to the pool in Beijing to compete in the 200-meter breaststroke. Comparisons to Lance Armstrong—the American cyclist who managed to transform testicular cancer into a source of motivation and strength—are inevitable.
So, too, are the conversations about the wisdom of Shanteau's decision to delay treatment. Too risky, too selfish, too short-sighted, some might say. Typical male, I can imagine my girlfriend saying with a sigh. Perhaps so.
But I, for one, can't fault Shanteau. He's taking a calculated risk, but the odds are on his side. With cure rates for testicular cancer well above 90 percent, even when it has spread beyond the testicles, Shanteau's disease is highly treatable. As this blog post by Abraham Morgentaler, the director of Men's Health Boston, a urology clinic, and an associate professor at Harvard University, points out, the risk associated with delaying treatment a few months is minimal.
This is especially true because doctors caught Shanteau's cancer at an early stage, perhaps even in the first few weeks of the tumor's existence. For that, Shanteau's girlfriend, Jeri Moss, apparently deserves much credit. When Shanteau first discovered the lump, it was Moss who reportedly insisted he visit a physician. "If you know my girlfriend," Shanteau told the San Jose Mercury News, "I didn't have a choice."
Such a dynamic is hardly unusual. Report after report has shown that men, when left to fend for themselves, are more likely than women to shun healthcare. "For a lot of guys, it's the women in their lives who manage their healthcare," Morgentaler told me. He notes that research has shown men tend to ask fewer questions during doctor's visits and have less success following physician's instructions. A 2007 survey conducted by the American Academy of Family Physicians found that the majority of men skip preventive health measures. And when men did visit a doctor, the survey found, it was often because of prodding from their spouses.
With an inspiring figure like Shanteau publicly battling a male cancer, maybe, just maybe, those norms will begin to shift.