Nathan Adrian’s lifetime of competitive swimming prepared him for many challenges, but facing testicular cancer was a plunge that the Olympic swimmer and medalist never thought he’d take.
It would be an understatement to declare that Nathan Adrian is good at swimming. Adrian, who started taking swim lessons at the age of two, boasts eight Olympic medals and was the co-captain of the 2016 Olympic Swimming Team—no small feats. But little did he know that the world of swimming and his goal-oriented mindset would help him through his diagnosis and treatment of stage II testicular cancer.
Adrian was only 19 years old when he competed in the 2008 Olympics and won a gold medal in the 4 x 100 Meter Free Relay. He went on to compete in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and has medaled in every event he has swum at both games.
“The entire time I was swimming, it was all about the training,” says Adrian. “Training hard to try and get faster, training hard so I could win medals at the end of the season.”
Adrian’s experience within the world of sports mirrors his overall mindset in life: A lot of work upfront brings rewards to enjoy later on. For Adrian, much of living is the process of setting a difficult goal and working hard trying to achieve it.
“Then cancer just throws all of that for a spin,” Adrian says. “Your entire plan goes out the window when you hear that word or when the realization sets in. ‘Oh my gosh, that’s what this is.’”
Testicular cancer is one of the most common cancers among American males between the ages of 15 and 35. While the cause is still not clear to doctors, the disease is highly treatable especially when caught early. The most common symptoms include a lump in either testicle; aches in the abdomen or groin; pain or discomfort in the testicle or scrotum; and back pain. Men should undergo screening regularly and visit a doctor if any symptoms last longer than two weeks.
“Then cancer just throws all of that for a spin. Your entire plan goes out the window when you hear that word or when the realization sets in.”
Adrian was prompted to see his doctor when he experienced swelling and hardness in one of his testicles that would not go away. Luckily, doctors caught Adrian’s testicular cancer early enough that the Olympic swimmer did not have to go through chemotherapy treatment, but he did have two surgeries to try and eradicate the disease.
“I did not have to do chemo, which I am very thankful for, but it was the full-blown thing. It wasn’t just like, ‘Oh my gosh, phew! We got lucky that time!’ It was like, ‘Oh no, we did the first surgery hoping that it would be the slow-growing one. But it wasn’t. It was fast-growing.’”
Adrian recalls that three or four of his lymph nodes still had cancer in them when he had his second surgery. If the affected lymph nodes were any bigger or if more lymph nodes had had cancer in them, an intensive chemotherapy regimen would have been in order.
After that second surgery, Adrian was put on active surveillance and was able to work his way back into the pool.
“I’m very thankful that I had swimming; it was something to really ground me,” expresses Adrian. “Through those stages, my rock was having something to work on, to still be goal-oriented.”
For Adrian, the worst thing is sitting around and staying idle. Keeping still is simply not an option to him, but cancer challenged that form of fulfillment.
“Mentally and emotionally, that’s a very bad place for me to be in, so swimming brought me that—it filled my cup in that way where I felt satisfied, and it fulfilled some of my values that are important to me and are important for my mental health,” he explains.
Adrian attributes many of his characteristics—including his approach to life—to swimming. While growing up, he was laser-focused on school and swimming. Any tendencies he developed during his early years were a result of those two settings. Goal setting, a positive mindset, forward thinking—these are just a few of the attributes that Adrian cultivated during his years in and out of the pool.
One of the traits that helped him better deal with his cancer diagnosis was managing the variables he was able to control while acknowledging and being OK with the ones he couldn’t.
When Adrian read that testicular cancer is a disease where doctors can’t trace its origins and that there was no clear cause or reason as to why he was diagnosed with it, he was offered a lesson in learning how to sit with the unknown.
Adrian asserts, “To be able to be comfortable with not knowing is something that is really hard to do, and it takes a long time to develop that. It’s something you develop through sports. You don’t know what your opponent is going to do. You don’t know what race day is going to look like; you don’t know if something crazy is going to happen outside of your control that can maybe throw you off if you let it.”
A few months before his diagnosis, Adrian married his long-time girlfriend, Hallie Ivester, who supported him in every step of his cancer journey. Along with his now-wife, his family and friends were there for him during treatment as well.
As many cancer warriors know, support—texts, cards, phone calls—may ebb and flow from the beginning to the end of cancer treatment, but Adrian remains thankful for everyone who reached out and made him feel less alone in his journey.
“It’s those people who really check in, maybe it’s just once a week—people make it their Monday morning routine—to say, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ That stuff really means a lot. I had several friends check in on me very regularly, and that meant the world. It helps you get through some of the tough times,” Adrian recalls.
One of Adrian’s friends even brought him a pastry while he was going through treatment. Though he couldn’t eat it due to his treatment-specific diet, the thoughtfulness and kindness in that simple gesture meant a lot to him, especially as he was trying to adjust to new routines when it came to treating his testicular cancer.
“Cancer is like a crazy cycle of emotions that you go through, and they cycle pretty rapidly,” says Adrian. “Whether it’s anxiety, or anger, or sadness or just ‘How did this happen? Why did this happen?’ You can’t boil it down to one emotion.”
As is common with post-treatment, your body after surgery or chemotherapy can feel different. There may be some things that your body could have easily done before treatment that you have to work back up to in the months after finishing your procedures.
Adrian had a lot of restrictions when it came to swimming after his surgery. Even when he was allowed to get back in the pool, he took it day by day, testing and evaluating what his body could tolerate.
While the recovery journey was slow-going and careful, Adrian’s cancer will most likely not come back. His two-year mark of active surveillance passed with no evidence of disease.
However, Adrian still makes sure to take his health into his own hands and advocate for himself.
“For me, that just means that every year when I see the doctor, I ask for some bloodwork to make sure that we look for those tumor markers that initially popped up, just to make sure everything’s OK. If it does have a recurrence, it doesn’t get out of hand before I notice anything,” Adrian explains.
“Cancer is like a crazy cycle of emotions that you go through, and they cycle pretty rapidly.”
With much of his testicular cancer experience behind him, Adrian has been able to get back to his everyday life activities, including raising his young daughter, Parker, with Hallie.
“[Having a child] is amazing. It’s always something that we had hoped to do, and obviously [when you have] testicular cancer you’re thinking about this ability to have kids, so it’s kind of a sweet ending to a horrible story,” says Adrian.
Life is good, adds Adrian, who is currently working on opportunities outside of his own swimming career. In 2019, Adrian and professional swimmer Will Copeland acquired AC Swim Club in San Rafael, Calif., a swim club that also provides swimming lessons.
“I’m not definitely retired, but I’m taking a good break. If I get the itch to go back and start training again, maybe I’ll do so. But for now, it’s developing and growing our swim programs that we have going on,” says Adrian.
Being diagnosed with cancer can turn your world upside down, and even when you come out on the other end, there are still moments that you remember and carry with you for the rest of your life. Adrian is all too familiar with this.
“Life is fragile,” he says. “As humans, you just really strive to have this intense control over everything that’s going on, but it’s sort of an illusion. And I don’t mean that to try and discourage people in any way, but personally I find that the best coping method for myself is to understand that life is out of my control in so many different ways. I try to do the best with the things that I can control.”
Knowing that he wasn’t alone helped Adrian overcome the hardest parts of cancer. Now, he’s encouraging people to share their stories and show up for the people they love when it’s most needed.
“Cancer can feel very isolating,” says Adrian. “It’s hard, and people are so wonderful being there for you. It’s not something that other people really understand. The more stories you can tell, the less alone other people will feel.”
To keep up with Nathan, follow him on Instagram at @nathangadrian.