Testicular Cancer: The Importance of Self-Exams and How to Talk to Your Kids About Them
Testicular cancer is one of the rarest and most curable cancers, impacting individuals particularly between the ages of 15 and 35. An estimated 9,900-plus new cases will be diagnosed in 2022, according to the American Cancer Society.
While testicular cancer is rare, it can’t be assumed that it won’t affect you, says urologist J. Ryan Mark, MD. It’s also important not to delay treatment.
Risk factors and risk reduction:
There is no known cause for testicular cancer, says Dr. Mark. However, you may be at higher risk if you had an undescended testicle at birth; have a family history; or have an abundance of a specific chromosome known as chromosome 12.
Unlike other cancers, there aren’t any modifiable risk factors; so, when it comes to risk reduction, the best thing we can do is try to catch things early through regular self-exams, explains Dr. Mark.
Self-exams should be done at least once a month, starting at age 15. The easiest and most effective time to do one is during or directly after a warm shower, as heat makes the scrotum more relaxed and the testes, more accessible, says Dr. Mark. Quickly, but cautiously, run your fingers up and down all sides feeling for anything abnormal.
What to look for:
“Any lump that feels rock hard shouldn’t be there and should be brought to your doctor’s attention,” explains Dr. Mark. “It may be as small as a pea (more likely to be benign, or non-cancerous) or around a centimeter in circumference (more likely it is be cancerous or pre-cancerous).”
Some people experience mild pain or discomfort as well, but not all the time.
Sparking the conversation with your kids:
Because self-exams should start at such a young age, as a parent, it’s incredibly important to inform and encourage your kids to do them, urges Dr. Mark. They’re probably not going to do them without being told.
“For most kids, it’s naturally going to be a bit embarrassing. They may make jokes, and that’s okay,” said Dr. Mark. “My advice is to make the conversation more light-hearted, even though it’s about cancer. Laugh with them to make them more comfortable. Provide them with instructional pamphlets or even funny videos online. Keep in mind, it’s not just a one-and-done conversation. Continue to remind them. The more you talk about it, the less embarrassing it’ll be.”
Experts view every testicular mass as cancer until proven otherwise, continues Dr. Mark. Fortunately, many masses are benign and can be removed with little to no risk of reoccurrence. The most common cancerous mass is known as a germ cell tumor (germ cells would typically develop into sperm).
Diagnosis often begins with a standard ultrasound and bloodwork; in some cases, CT scans and/or MRIs may be ordered. All masses are removed, and that’s when the ultimate diagnosis is made.
Treatment and outcomes:
When cancer is found, the full affected testicle will need to be removed. Many individuals, understandably, express concerns about testicle removal, says Dr. Mark. “The good news is it’s extremely curative; it’s an easy surgery to recover from; and studies have shown that there are rarely complications with testosterone production or fertility (your other testicle can handle all the work).”
Most testicular cancers are caught at an early stage and have a survival rate of 99 percent following surgery, adds Dr. Mark. Even in more advanced stages, survival rates are greater than 70 percent and outcomes are continuously improving with new treatment advances. Currently, chemotherapy is the most common treatment, aside from surgery.
You don’t want to wait. While we know survival rates are high, we shouldn’t delay seeking care when we feel that something is wrong, reminds Dr. Mark. Don’t take those chances. Don’t subject yourself to extensive treatment – like chemotherapy and surgery – if you don’t need to.
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