Doping and cancer

May 14th, 2010  |  Tags: , , ,

Houston Texans linebacker Brian Cushing will be suspended for four games at the beginning of this season for failing a drug test at the beginning of last season. This briefly scandalized some subset of football fans and journalists, since last season was Cushing’s first year, and he had been awarded the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Instead of stripping him of the award, the AP held a re-vote, and Cushing wound up keeping the honor. It’s a ridiculous story that reflects poorly on an individual athlete, on the AP, and on the NFL, but more people have written about this than I have.

The interesting part of this saga from my perspective is that Cushing was caught using human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG. I don’t follow baseball or the Olympics all that closely and am thus not an expert on the details of sports doping; I only know of the natural ways that this substance might occur in your body. Specifically, elevated hCG either means that you’re pregnant or that you have testicular cancer. Other tumor markers can be affected by other factors (physical stress, alcohol abuse, etc.), but hCG is very useful since abnormal hCG levels exclusively correlate with pregnancy or cancer. Cushing was not parking in the “expectant mothers” space outside of Reliant Stadium last September, so this suggests that the only natural explanation for his elevated hCG would be cancer.

There are unnatural ways that one might exhibit elevated hCG. As I’ve learned since this story came out, hCG is used to stimulate testosterone production after anabolic steroid use. It seems likely that Cushing may have come by his hCG this way, especially since he was recovering from a preseason knee injury when he failed the doping test (and since he hasn’t died of cancer or given birth in the last few months). Indeed, it is essentially impossible that his elevated test results could be explained without artificial hCG introduction.

The simple physiological facts make Cushing’s recent press conference, in which he denied doping, insinuated that his positive test results led him to believe that he had cancer, and pledged to find a natural explanation for his failed test, all the more ridiculous. Football teams keep millions of dollars worth of imaging devices in their practice facilities and stadiums, and professional athletes routinely receive expensive MRI scans after even trivial injuries, but we are expected to believe that the Texans’ medical staff were unwilling or unable to give Cushing an ultrasound or follow-on blood work? We’re supposed to believe that Cushing actually thought that he had a germ cell tumor — a hyper-aggressive disease that can kill a healthy young man in a matter of weeks if left alone — somewhere in his body but went on to play a season of football instead of seeking treatment?

I’m not sure whether this PR tactic reflects Cushing’s stupidity or his temerity.