Face it: it's a rare man who enjoys talking about his testicular health. But testicular cancer can affect any man at any time. Although it's rare (about one in 500 men will develop the disease between the ages of 15 and 30), it is the most common form of cancer in young men between the ages of 20 and 35. The rate is increasing and doctors don't know why.
A simple, regular self-examination is known to help detect he early signs of the disease and reduce the amount of treatment needed. But currently less than one in five men regularly checks his testicles.
First, the good news...
- More than 95% of cases of testicular cancer are curable
- Out of all cancers, testicular cancer is by far the easiest to treat
- If it's caught early enough, the treatment is much simpler (99% of cases at the early stage are cured)
- The average time it takes men to seek advice from a doctor is three months
Here's what you need to know to stay healthy
From puberty onwards, it's important that you know your way around your testicles, including what they feel like. Knowing what is normal for you will make it easier to recognize any changes. It's perfectly normal for one of your testes to be slightly larger or hang slightly lower than the other; no one is completely symmetrical and everyone's body is different.
The best time to check your testicles is in the shower or the bath, as the skin will be looser and more relaxed. There's no point in trying to check when you have an erection; the skin of the scrotum will be too tight for a proper examination. So when you're relaxed and there are no likely distractions...
- Support or cup your testicles in the palms of both your hands
- Using your thumbs and forefingers, gently squeeze each testicle
- Learn to feel the difference between your testicles and the tubes that connect them to the rest of your body. You may feel bumps in these tubes, but these are not normally anything to worry about
- You're looking out for changes in the consistency of the testicles themselves - pea-sized hardened areas or swellings. These lumps are usually painless
What to do next
If you do find something irregular or if anything has changed since you last checked, it doesn't necessarily mean you have cancer. But it is very important to take action. Put aside any embarrassment and see a doctor. Don't panic, but don't put it off. The sooner anything is diagnosed, the sooner it is treatable. You will not be wasting anyone's time and you will be doing the right thing. Remember, it's your body and it's up to you to look after it. Don't take a chance.
If the doctor isn't immediately sure, a series of simple tests will help suggest or discount cancer. The doctor may arrange some blood tests and/or an ultrasound examination. This uses sound waves to build up a picture of the testes and scrotum, and can distinguish between cancer and lumps due to other causes. It's totally painless.
What happens then?
Sometimes these tests may still not totally rule out the possibility of cancer, in which case the only certain way to detect testicular cancer is by surgery. During a short operation the surgeon can usually see whether or not the lump is cancerous and a small sample of tissue may be taken for immediate examination. This is called a biopsy. If it is cancer, the testicle will be removed.
Losing a testicle
The thought of losing a testicle is understandably distressing. But its removal can be the only way to ensure that your body is free of cancer. And despite common belief:
- Having had a cancerous testicle does not affect your ability to have children
- Even having one testicle removed does not affect your ability to have children
- It does not limit sexual performance
- Replacement testicles are available for cosmetic purposes if desired
Sometimes, if removing a testicle does not cure the cancer, then chemotherapy is necessary. Treatment for testicular cancer is very successful and the cancer does usually come back after standard chemo.
Any man is at risk of being diagnosed with testicular cancer at any age. Doctors do not yet know what causes the disease, but there are a number of factors that may affect the chance of development. You are more at risk if:
- Your testicles did not descend into the scrotum during puberty
- A member of your immediate family has had testicular cancer
- You lead an inactive lifestyle; regular exercise is a very important way of preventing cancer
- You smoke; if you don't smoke, you've already cut the risk of any cancer