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Testicular cancer is not generally in the news unless someone famous gets it. Actors and athletes, all in the public eye, have found their young lives turned upside down. Fortunately, in most cases, the cancer was caught early enough to for them to get back in the game.

The good news is that testicular cancer is relatively rare (about 1% of all male cancers). Even better, it is highly curable. In fact, if it is detected early, the 5-year survival rate is 85%-90%, but early detection in the key.

Most young people do not think about things like cancer. It is likely that if you are unaware of it, you are unlikely to take early signs seriously. This can lead to a delay in diagnosis and treatment. What does this mean for you? Whatever your age, learn about your risk for testicular cancer, how to detect it early, and how it is treated.

Risk and Symptoms

There is no definitive cause of this cancer, but there are certain factors that may put some men at higher risk. For example, men who were born with one or both testicles undescended are more prone to the disease. In fact, this condition increases the risk of testicular cancer four times. Other factors include a male relative with testicular cancer history, and infertility.

Testicular tumors almost always derive from the sperm-producing cells of the testes, called germ cells. The tumors here are almost always malignant. Unlike benign tumors, malignant tumors can invade and destroy the body's tissues and travel to other parts of the body. In advanced stages, testicular cancer can travel to the abdomen, the chest, or the brain.

There are two major classes of testicular tumors:

  • Seminomas—Tumors in this class grow more slowly.
  • Nonseminomas—These tumors tend to grow and spread more quickly.

The early signs of testicular cancer can be quite subtle. If you have regularly been checking your testicles, you will be familiar with their usual consistency. If you notice a change in the texture, you should consult a doctor. A tumor may sometimes feel like a pea-shaped lump, but be on the look out for any change or hardening of the tissue. Early tumors may or may not cause pain. Some men experience backache or pain and swelling in the breast.

In a more advanced case, there may be more serious symptoms, which may include pain and swelling of the testicles. If tumors have spread to other organs you may have widespread symptoms like coughing up blood.

Any unusual swelling, hardening, or mass in a testicle should be checked by a doctor. Although in many cases the symptoms are not caused by cancer, the chances of recovery from testicular cancer are much greater if a tumor is caught in its early stages.

Testicular Self-exam

Although studies have not shown a decrease in cancer death from routinely doing testicular self-exams, some doctors still may recommend them. However, there is no doubt that if you do notice a lump or bump on your testicle, you should let your doctor know. This is because detecting a tumor early can help ensure that treatments will completely cure the disease.

How to Do the Exam

If you would like to do routine self testicular exams, you can check your testicles after a warm bath or shower once a month. Your skin is more relaxed and you testicles are lower. You will want to look at and feel your testicles.

Look at your scrotum for any signs of swelling or discoloration. It is normal for one of your testicles to be uneven, one larger or lower than the other. If you do this regularly, you will learn what is normal for you and will be more able to detect changes that could be a sign of a problem.

Next, roll each testicle between your thumbs and fingers. Use both hands on each testicle. You are feeling for hardness, bumps, lumps, or changes in the consistency of your testicles.

Above each testicle is a comma-shaped structure called an epididymis, which stores sperm. Above the epididymis is the spermatic cord or vas deferens. Do not mistake these for lumps, but become familiar with their normal structure and consistency. If you are not sure what you are feeling, talk to your doctor.

If you notice changes, swelling, lumps, or hardening in any part of your testicles, call your doctor. Many changes are normal and not a sign of cancer, but having them checked could save your life.

Diagnosis and Treatment

There are many ways to test for testicular cancer. This may involve blood tests, which look for elevated cancer markers. More thorough scans of the scrotum or body may be needed to determine the type and stage of cancer development. These imaging scans are known as CT, PET, or MRI. A scrotal ultrasound may also be ordered by your doctor. Accurate diagnosis occurs when the tumor is removed via surgery and examined in the laboratory.

Treatment of testicular cancer depends on the type and stage of the tumor and the age and your health. If the tumor has been detected early, it may only be necessary to remove the affected testicle. Radiation therapy, further surgery, or chemotherapy treatments may be needed in some cases. Even after successful treatment, doctors will monitor the recovery process and do exams and tests to be sure that there is no recurrence of the disease.

The best weapon you can have is knowledge of your health. Although testicular cancer has a good survival rate for early detection, it is still a serious disease. If you suspect anything is wrong, contact your doctor immediately.

  • American Cancer Society

    http://www.cancer.org/

  • National Cancer Institute

    http://www.cancer.gov/

  • Canadian Cancer Society

    http://www.cancer.ca/

  • Cancer Care Ontario

    http://www.cancercare.on.ca/

  • Seminoma. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what. Updated May 31, 2012. Accessed December 13, 2012.

  • Testicular Cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/cid/documents/webcontent/003142-pdf.pdf. Accessed December 13, 2012.