If you feel a lump, pain or swelling in your testicles, you may wonder what’s going on. This could be caused by any number of things, and cancer is just one of them.
Testicular cancer is rare in general, but it is the most common one in males 15 to 34.
It’s also one of the easiest to cure. About 95% of those survive more than 5 years after it’s found.
Get an appointment with your doctor if you feel anything new, abnormal or painful in that area. He can do an exam and give you various kinds of tests find out what it is.
Testicular Cancer Basics
The testicles (sometimes called testes) are oval-shaped organs a little smaller than a golf ball and hang from the base of a man’s torso. They rest in a sac of skin known as the scrotum, beneath the penis. They make the sperm that fertilizes a woman’s egg to create a baby as well as make hormones such as testosterone.
You have testicular cancer when abnormal cells start to grow out of control on the testes. The majority of cases come in two main types:
Seminomas, which are slow-growing and slow-spreading tumors.
Nonseminomas, which are usually made up of more than one type of cancer cell. They grow and spread more quickly than seminomas.
There are also growths called “stromal tumors” that are often benign but sometimes can be cancerous. They show up in the tissues that produce hormones inside the testicles. They account for about 5% of adult cases and about 20% for boys.
What Increases My Chances of Getting It?
There are a variety of things that might make you more likely to get testicular cancer. They include:
- Testes that didn’t form or descend normally.
- Your father or brother has had it.
- You’ve had testicular cancer before.
- HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Men in their 20s and early 30s make up about half of all cases. Also, white men are as much as five times more likely than African-American or Asian-American men to develop testicular cancer.
Being in the higher-risk groups does not mean you will get cancer. And you may not have any of these risk factors and could still develop it.
Often, you can find a tumor by examining yourself. Here’s how to do it:
While standing, gently but firmly roll each testicle between your thumb and fingers and feel for anything abnormal. If you come across a small, hard lump, any pain, or swelling, check with your doctor.
As you feel the testicle, you may notice a cordlike structure on top and in back of the testicle. This is called “the epididymis.” It is about an inch long and is sensitive but should not be painful to touch. Do not mistake this for a lump.
Do the exam during or after a warm bath or shower. This relaxes the skin, making it easier to feel anything unusual.
Sometimes, a testicle may not have a lump but could be swollen or enlarged. However, it’s normal for one of your testicles to be larger than the other. Talk to your doctor if you have any questions about your exam.
Sometimes, testicular cancer can cause a heavy feeling or ache in your scrotum or lower belly. You might also have sudden buildup of fluid in your scrotum.
In boys, it might cause more male sex hormones than normal to be made. Watch for early signs of puberty, such as the growth of facial hair or a deepening of the voice, in a younger boy.
There’s no standard test for detecting it, but sometimes your doctor will notice something not quite right during a routine exam.
If he finds a sign, he has several tests he can use can confirm a diagnosis or rule it out. They include:
An ultrasound: It uses sound waves to paint a picture of the testicles inside the scrotum. It’s like the tests given to pregnant women to view a developing fetus. It can tell whether some growths are more likely to be cancer or might be something harmless.
When you do this test, you usually lie on your back on an exam table. A technician spreads a clear gel over your scrotum that may feel a bit cool, then moves an ultrasound device over your scrotum.
Blood test: In many cases, testicular cancers create proteins or enzymes that can be found in the blood. If they are elevated, doctors may be able to tell which type of cancer you have or whether it has spread.
To get the blood, a doctor’s aide will insert a thin needle into your arm to pull it out. You usually just feel a small prick.
Biopsy: In a few cases, doctors will perform surgery to remove a small piece of the tumor and check it for cancer. That’s called a biopsy, and you usually get the result quickly. It’s rarely done because there’s a chance the procedure could cause the cancer to spread.
If your doctor finds a tumor, he’ll do more tests to make sure cancer hasn’t spread. Those tests might include X-rays or other types of scans.
Once your tests are done, doctors will try to find out whether cancer has spread to other parts of the body and if so, how far. The basic diagnosis usually includes a number, called a stage.
- In Stage I, cancer is limited to the testicle and tissues close to it.
- In Stage II, it has spread to the lymph nodes in the abdomen.
- In Stage III, cancer has spread to distant lymph nodes or other organs, perhaps as far as the lungs, liver or brain. This is known as “metastasis.”
Once your diagnosis is finished, you and your doctor can talk about the best treatment.