Testicular cancer is a form of cancer that affects the testicles (testes or balls). The testicles are part of the male reproductive organ. They are two small egg-shaped glands that are housed in a sac called the scrotum, below the penis. The testicles are responsible for the production of the male hormone such as testosterone and the production and storage of sperms. You can get cancer in either one or both testicles. Compared with other types of cancer, it is pretty rare and mostly affects men between the ages of 15-35 years. However, men of any age can still get it. With early diagnosis and treatment, testicular cancer can be cured and the risk of death is pretty low.
Just like most cancers, there is no known cause of testicular cancer. However, there are some risk factors that may increase an individual’s risk of getting testicular cancer. These include having a family history of testicular cancer, mostly a first degree relative (a first degree relative is a close blood relative which includes the individual’s parents, siblings or children); having an undescended testicle also known as cryptorchidism (during fetal development, the testicles form in the abdomen before descending into the scrotum before birth); abnormal testicular development such as in Klinefelter syndrome and age (more common in younger men); men who have a cancer in one testicle stand a high chance of developing it in the other testicle.
The most common sign is a painless lump or swelling on either testicle. Other signs and symptoms may include but not limited to pain or dull ache in the abdomen/groin, discomfort in the testicles, a sudden collection of fluid in the scrotum and enlargement in the male breast tissue.
Testicular cancer can be discovered by a man himself either unintentionally or intentionally through a testicular examination to check for lumps. In some cases, a lump may be detected though a routine physical examination. If a lump is present, a blood test is done to determine the presence and levels of tumor markers. This is very helpful in determining if the lump present is cancerous or not. An ultrasound test can also be conducive to determine the nature of the testicular lumps; whether they are solid or fluid filled and whether they are inside or outside of the testicles. If all indications reveal a cancerous appearing lump, an urologist will then take over if surgery is recommended.
It is imperative to determine the stage of the cancer, as it helps in choosing an effective treatment plan. Testicular cancer can exist in 3 stages. Stage I is when the cancer is present in only the testicles, Stage II is where cancer has spread to one or more lymph nodes in the abdomen and Stage III is when the cancer cells spread beyond the testicles and lymph nodes to additional areas in the body.
Treatment options include surgery to remove testicular cancer, radiation therapy to destroy cancer cells or slow their growth and chemotherapy which uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Side effects from chemotherapy may depend on the medications used but common ones include fatigue, nausea and hair loss. There is a higher risk of infertility and changes in male hormones are common after certain treatments. Hence, it is advisable to talk to the oncologist and/or urologist about options for preserving one’s sperms before treatment. However, it doesn’t affect erection and most men can have a normal erection after treatment. After treatment, it is advisable to adopt a healthy lifestyle such as exercising regularly, good quality rest each night and incorporating fruits and vegetables in your diet. Also, schedule a follow-up appointment to check your general health regularly and ensure cancer is non-recurrent. Also getting emotional support from family and close friends can aid in a full recovery post-treatment.
With April being Testicular cancer awareness month, what better time than now, to examine your balls. I therefore definitely cannot end this post without showing how to self-exam your testicles for lumps. Monthly self-examinations aid in early diagnosis. It is best to do it right after a hot shower when the scrotal skin is relaxed. The examination should be done while standing.
- Gently but firmly roll one testicle at a time, between your thumb and forefingers. Make sure you feel the whole surface. The firmness should be the same all around. It is normal for one testicle to feel slightly bigger than the other. One might hang lower than the other. That’s also normal.
- You may feel a soft tube-like structure above and behind the testicle. These tubes (the vas deferens and the epididymis) collect and carry sperm. Just become familiar with how they feel.
- Feel for a pea-sized lump. Lumps/bumps are not normal, even if they cause no pain. Pain is not normal.
- Always look for a change in size, shape and texture of the testicles.
If you find a lump or swelling or pain or any other change, get it checked out immediately. Changes are not always cancerous, but if it is, you have the best chance for a cure if you see a urologist right away.
Early diagnosis saves life.
Written by: Rebecca Anumel-Ackah (Pharmacist)