It can be an embarrassing thing for a guy to call his doctor about a lump or swelling on his testicles, but it’s important to do.
Whether it’s painful or not, a mass on the testicle is the most common early signal of testicular cancer, and should prompt an immediate call to the doctor. It often strikes young men — most commonly between the ages of 15 and 45 — who don’t even suspect it might be cancer. Too often, neither do their primary care physicians.
“It’s usually interpreted as an infection by the patient and the physician so they’ll start a long course of antibiotics,” says urologist Andrew Stephenson, MD, who specializes in cancers of the prostate, bladder and testis.
“They might wait four to six weeks to see if he responds to the antibiotics, but for a rapidly growing cancer like testicular cancer, those four to six weeks can be very important.”
“It’s actually pretty uncommon for an otherwise healthy man of that age to develop a testis infection,” Dr. Stephenson says. “If I find a firm mass on the testes in a man who’s 15 to 45, I consider that to be testicular cancer until proven otherwise.”
That’s not the only possible warning sign. Since testicular cancer generates the female hormone hCG, it can cause swelling or tenderness of a man’s breasts. If the cancer has started to spread, Dr. Stephenson says, men might have abdominal or back pain or even a swelling in the neck.
Guys who were born with an undescended testicle are among those at greatest risk, so Dr. Stephenson encourages parents to talk with their sons about the warning signs of testicular cancer as soon as they hit puberty.
Diagnosing testicular cancer is as easy as doing an ultrasound, and results are nearly immediate. Treatment is straightforward as well — removal of the testicle — and is usually enough to cure the disease.
“Losing a testicle is something no man wants to have happen, but there’s functionally no important consequence of removal,” he says. “Their fertility potential is unaffected, their male sex hormone levels are unaffected, and about half of men have a testicle prosthesis so they have the appearance of two.”