Simon Hislop is uneasy about any sporting comparison between himself and Lance Armstrong but as the 27-year-old Oxford post-graduate prepares to take part in next Saturday's Boat Race there is a very good reason to mention him in the same breath as the seven-times Tour de France champion. Like Armstrong, Hislop recovered from testicular cancer to compete in top-level sport.
It was only 11 months ago, just weeks before his medical finals at Imperial College that Hislop found a lump that he feared might be a problem. "Half of me thought, 'just ignore it, it's probably nothing, get it checked out when you've finished your exams'," Hislop said. "I think that's quite a common reaction among men.
"But the more rational side of me – the medical student side – said: 'no, don't be an idiot, get it checked out.' I went to my GP. She couldn't find anything initially, but she sent me for an ultrasound scan.
"When I went for the scan I said to the guy: 'I think I might have testicular cancer.' He brushed it off, saying: 'I'm sure it's nothing, we get guys like you in all the time.' Then after 10 minutes he said: 'Yes, you're right.' To be honest I had been pretty sure it was cancer. It was a hard, painless lump."
Within five days Hislop was under the surgeon's knife, having a hernia repaired at the same time in what he jokes was a "two for one" deal. Thanks to the early diagnosis, he did not need chemotherapy.
Hislop follows cycling closely and had read Armstrong's autobiography before his diagnosis. The American's cancer was detected at a much later stage and spread to other parts of his body, threatening his life before he made a lengthy recovery. But Hislop was revising for his exams only three days after his operation, although he admits that some of his other post-surgery plans were a little ambitious.
"I had day surgery and afterwards I was slightly away with the fairies because of the morphine," he said. "I said to a friend: 'I really have to get to this orthopaedic revision course this evening. Do you think you could drive me there?' I just managed to get to the lecture theatre on time but then I had a reaction to the morphine and vomited all over the corridor. I definitely pushed that a bit too hard.
"I'd been diagnosed two weeks before a big race for Imperial. I thought I'd be able to get back in time, but that was also pretty foolish. I got back on a rowing machine a week later and after one stroke I knew I was doing the wrong thing."
How did the interruption affect his studies? "I wouldn't say it was helpful, but it chilled me out a bit. Some people get so wound up they end up revising for their finals until three in the morning. I took it a bit lighter and consequently did pretty well. I didn't worry too much about the finals because I had the cancer at the back of my mind and I didn't worry too much about the cancer because I had the finals coming up."
By the summer Hislop was back in a boat at Oxford, having enrolled at Oriel College on a one-year orthopaedic surgical research course.It was not long before he felt"completely back to normal". While it will help his medical career, Hislopadmits that the prospect of rowing in the Boat Race played a part in his decision to go to Oxford.
Having initially taken up rowing at 15 to get fit for rugby, Hislop twice rowed in winning crews at Henley and was selected in the British eight for the 2005 Under-23 World Championships, only to pull out with injury. Life as a junior doctor beckons this summer so he accepts that next weekend will probably be his swansong.
"Rowing at Imperial was great, but it's very different at Oxford," he said. "Once you're selected, everyone is just focused on this one race. Unlike any other area of the sport, you know from day one exactly who and where you're going to be racing. It's very focused and very easy to get motivated and develop team spirit."
Since September, Oxford have trained twice a day for six days a week, arriving at the gym by seven and going out on the water in the afternoon. "It's tough to get out of bed at 6.15 every morning, but you know Cambridge will be doing the same, so that's the motivation," he said.
Did he mind missing out on some other, less healthy aspects of student life? "The Boat Race is a special thing to be part of and everyone is willing to make sacrifices for that. I've also been a fresher before – that seems a long time ago – so I've done my bit. And if you go out on the lash every night, it gets a bit boring, doesn't it?"
He would also be very happy if his case serves as an example to other men. "If young guys check themselves and pester their GPs if they suspect something, then they can catch testicular cancer early," he said. "There's a temptation among men to act all macho and say 'it's nothing', but it's a problem that needs to be addressed."Reuse content