Despite high-profile patients like Lance Armstrong, testicular cancer still lacks the recognition of breast cancer’s pink-ribbon campaign. While it’s a less widespread ailment than prostate cancer, it is a young man’s disease, and is the most common type of cancer to strike those between 15 and 34 years of age.
About one man out of every 200 will suffer from this disease during his lifetime, but happily the prognosis is good: testicular cancer has one of the best outlooks among cancer diagnoses. In cases where the cancer is caught before it spreads to other organs, the survival rate is close to 99%.
No direct cause for testicular cancer has yet been found, so there is no advice a doctor can give to help you guarantee that you will be able to avoid this disease. However, there are certain risk factors that can affect a man’s chances of developing testicular cancer. White men have the highest rates of this cancer among all ethnicities: the incidence of testicular cancer in this group has actually doubled over the past half-century.
While they are still less likely than white men to be diagnosed with testicular cancer, the frequency of diagnosis in black men is also on the rise. Another element linked to testicular cancer is the presence of an undescended testicle; and, as with many cancers, having a close relative with the disease is also a significant risk factor.
Whether or not a man is a risk, possible symptoms of testicular cancer are a reason to see a doctor as soon as possible. The first warning sign may be a lump in the testicles, or an overall swollen sensation. There may be pain in the testicles or the surrounding area, or a noticeable amount of fluid may begin to collect in the scrotum. Symptoms may not be clearly located in the testicles, either.
Sometimes the first sign to appear is a dull, non-specific pain in the lower abdomen – a common problem associated with many diseases, which can delay diagnosis. If symptoms are reported to a doctor soon after they are reported, patients are more likely to start treatment before the cancer has a chance to spread, which greatly increases their odds of survival.
In order to confirm a diagnosis of testicular cancer, a doctor may order some combination of lab and imaging tests. Certain chemicals that show up in the blood can indicate the presence of cancer, and an ultrasound scan can detect the location of a mass. Sometimes a doctor may want to schedule a biopsy exam as well, to take a sample of the growth in order to determine whether it’s benign or malignant.
Once testicular cancer has been diagnosed, the most often medical intervention is to schedule a surgery to remove the affected testicle. While this may sound alarming, the good news is that one-sided testicle removal rarely affects fertility or penile function. (A man who loses both testicles will be infertile afterward – if bilateral surgery is needed, it’s possible to bank sperm before the procedure is scheduled.) Medical manufacturers even produce prostheses to help re-create the pre-surgical appearance of the testicles.
Sometimes surgery may be used in combination with radiation therapy in order to make sure any cancer cells left behind by the scalpel are quickly eradicated before they can spread. This is especially common if the tumor is of a type called a seminoma, a slower-growing mass that responds well to radiation.
If the tumor is a quick-growing type called a non-seminoma, then chemotherapy is the better choice. This is especially true if the cancer has begun to spread outside the testicles, or if the disease is at a more advanced stage. Chemotherapy has also started to replace radiation as a first-line treatment for seminomas, as studies so far seem to show fewer side effects for those treated this way.