In Southern California, Lyle Alzado, once an intimidating football player, receives chemotherapy for a rare form of inoperable brain cancer, which he blames on prolonged use of steroids and human growth hormone.
Steve Courson, too, once made a living in the trenches of professional football. Today, in Pittsburgh, he awaits a heart transplant. Courson says steroid abuse did not cause his heart to degenerate but probably contributed to the deadly condition.
And in Baltimore, there's Joe. You've never heard of him; he's in his 50s and works in construction. He also has used steroids.
Athletics were always an important part of Joe's life; he played football in his younger days and has continued to lift weights for recreation. The stories of Alzado and Courson scare him, because he has lived through his own drug-induced ordeal.
At first, he felt like a superman. Eventually, though, the steroids attacked his masculinity.
Alzado, 42, and Courson, 35, say they played biochemical roulette with their bodies because steroids made them bigger and stronger, better at their job.
The compounds also trigger aggression, Courson points out. "If you are a naturally violent person, or you have problems with your temper, don't take these drugs. You'll wind up in jail."
For Alzado and Courson, using steroids was an occupational hazard. For Joe, who asked that his last name be withheld, that was not the case. "It's a macho thing, that's what it's all about," he says.
Big-time football players, body-builders and weight-lifters aren't the only ones abusing steroids, doctors say. Some teen-age boys and men do it in hopes of getting bigger and looking better.
"I said I would never take them because I had never taken any [illegal] drug," says Joe. But one day at the gym, he looked over at the man next to him and saw how big and strong steroids had made him. "Then I said, 'Hey, what the hell,' and I tried them. I stayed on them for 2 1/2 years. That's the way it happens."
Joe gave himself the first steroid injection in 1982 and adopted a six-weeks-on, six-weeks-off schedule for using the drugs. A six-week supply cost $34 and could be purchased from peddlers who frequented the gyms where Joe lifted weights.
"When I started taking steroids, the first three weeks, I thought nothing was happening," he says. "Then, the third week, I was in the gym and I put 315 pounds on the bench. I was just warming up, and I thought I had put on the wrong weight. Then I thought, 'uh-oh, it's working.' I got back on the bench and I couldn't lift enough weight."
Joe, who is well under 6 feet tall, soon pumped up his body to 225 pounds, more than thirty pounds above his normal weight. The added bulk made him feel better about himself. "You look good -- you feel good," says Joe. "If there was a good side, that was it, but there really is no good side."
For Joe, the bad side appeared even before he developed the prostate and genital problems that eventually forced him off steroids. "I was more aggressive. I would look for an argument. I thought I could walk out in front of a car and it couldn't hurt me," he says.
Doctors call this syndrome "Roid Rage." It can range from feelings of invincibility to more serious mental aberrations and even to extremely violent acts. Some people lash out and commit crimes while others try to harm themselves.
Bizarre physical symptoms eventually caused Joe to seek medical help. He says he had been able to cope with the "normal" side effects of the steroids, the boundless energy that "made you want to go out at 3 a.m. and lift weights," the need to constantly urinate, and the swollen nipples that hurt so much it was painful to even wear a T-shirt.
But when his testicles atrophied and burned with pain, and he was plagued by temporary impotence, Joe went to doctors to find out what was wrong. An examination showed that his prostate also had been affected.
Tests ruled out all possible causes except steroids, Joe says, so he stopped taking the synthetic hormones. But, when his medical problems cleared up, the temptation to resume was irresistible. "As soon as I started again, all the problems came back."
Joe's afflictions are well-known side effects of steroid abuse, says Dr. William Howard, director of the Sports Medicine Clinic at Union Memorial Hospital.
Other complications include kidney and liver damage, heart trouble, stunted growth, violent rage, sterility, personality disorders, high blood pressure and an elevated cholesterol count.
In addition, men develop female characteristics such as enlarged breasts. For women, who are less likely to use the drugs, the side effects include an enlarged and painful clitoris, a lowered voice, facial hair and pattern baldness.
Synthetic hormones have many legitimate medical uses, such as for emaciated patients who need to gain weight, or for some children whose growth is subnormal. But dosage must be closely monitored by a physician because the drugs can upset the body's hormonal balances.