2010 was a hectic year for burgeoning professional cyclist Bobby Sweeting, but after one-in-a-billion case of cancer turned the American's life upside-down, he re-launched his racing career with Kenda/5-Hour Energy, all the while keeping his condition under wraps - until now.
Sweeting had signed a contract with the Land Rover-Orbea pro team in November 2009, but the squad folded before the 2010 season started, forcing the then 22-year-old to look for other means of employment.
As a recent college graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering Sweeting decided to put his education to work and landed a job at Cannondale working in their rigid frames department. However, he still wanted to race so decided to step back and compete at an amateur level with Team Globalbike. By March of 2010 he had gotten married, moved to Connecticut to work a full-time job at Cannondale and started racing for a new team. This was a lot to deal with in one year and yet more was to come.
On Sweeting's hip was a round looking red rash that the 24-year old had since he was 18. This rash neither itched or hurt and Sweeting had been to doctors who thought it could be a fungus. In four years he went through 10 different creams in an effort to get rid of it and a couple of different doctors, with none of them thinking to biopsy the red mark.
With the move to Connecticut completed Sweeting was tired of having this rash on his hip and returned to a doctor, insisting on having it biopsied. To his surprise the results came back as Mycosis Fungoides, a very rare type of cutaneous t-cell lymphoma.
According to his doctors contracting Mycosis Fungoides is a one in a billion chance for a white male under the age of 60. Even though he had been living with this cancer for five years its slow growth still meant he had caught it early. As the disease is so rare few doctors have seen it – maybe once in their medical career.
Taking a four week leave of absence from his job, Sweeting drove an hour away to Yale to see a specialist in just this type of lymphoma. For three weeks straight, Monday through Friday, he received radiation treatment – a beam of localized electrons that was focused on his skin for about 30 seconds. This beam vibrates the molecules and radiates the lymphoma. The very first treatment eliminates 99% of the cancerous cells and the other 14 visits were to insure that the 1% didn't return.
With the 2011 race season just weeks from starting he decided to keep his condition a secret – only his family and doctors knew. What complicated matters was that he'd just signed a pro contract for 2011 with Kenda/5-Hour Energy and was concerned that it might affect his chances of staying on the team.
"I knew they (team management) wouldn't hold it against me," said Sweeting, "but I didn't want any sympathy coming onto the team. I wanted to be known for my racing and earning my spot for the big races."
Fast forward one year, the radiation treatments are completed and he has a successful season behind him which include a stage win in the Tour of Elk Grove and second overall, and Sweeting thought it would be a good time to let people know his secret. Also, a journalist was writing a story about how he was juggling life as a full-time employee at Cannondale with that as professional cyclist. His Mycosis Fungoides was obviously a part of the story and would be made public.
When asked how he was able to keep such a big secret from almost everyone for a year Sweeting confided, "It was tough and I tried to forget about it. But I was pretty isolated in the winter (living in Connecticut) and wasn't seeing any teammates, so there wasn't that many people to tell." But soon the 2011 season was in full swing and he was surrounded by his teammates – yet he still didn't tell anyone.
"The doctors had assured me that there was a very small chance that it would come back. So yeah, I had cancer, but I was over it and it wasn't something everyone needed to know."
In fact it was only last week he told team manager Chad Thompson via e-mail about his condition.
"I asked him by-email permission to release this information to the media in case it wasn't aligned with his focus regarding the team," said Sweeting. "He replied with one sentence, 'I'll call you.'"
Thompson was obviously surprised that Sweeting had Mycosis Fungoides and the team has pledged to support him and wouldn't terminate his contract.
"He just wanted to know what he or the team could do to help me."
There's just a small chance for it to return but with the season in front of him Sweeting is focused on becoming a successful member of the Kenda/5-Hour Energy team. A more important focus is earning a berth in the Amgen Tour of California and perhaps being part of that event's Breakaway from Cancer program.