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Men need to talk about testicular cancer
Almost thirty years ago I was working as a press photographer, often driving long distances to assignments. After sitting in the car for hours during trips my testicles used to painfully ache and I thought something could be amiss. When checking myself at home, one ball was particularly painful to the touch, although I don’t remember any great lump or swelling.
I lived in South London at the time with my wife and had a great local Doctors’ Group Practice we’d used whilst having our two baby boys. Despite this, like many men then, I was reluctant to see my G.P. to get my balls checked.
My missis had always gone for regular appointments for check-ups and tests to ensure her reproductive kit was all dandy, but I just didn’t like the idea of a stranger rummaging around with my undercarriage and was sure things would sort themselves out down there. Women can be very wise, and men can be very stupid!
After another long car journey and more pain, I finally went. My doctor examined me and booked me into the hospital at once for scans, which happened the following week. The week after that I was there again to have one of my testicles removed.
I found it so difficult to talk about
I was worried, bewildered, frightened. I would be losing part of me and I'd have to endure chemotherapy. I couldn’t discuss things with my mates, it seemed too embarrassing, personal, intimate. It felt emasculating too and I knew no one who’d had cancer. Cancer - it seemed such a terrifying word then. I felt very alone, far too young to be anything but in full fighting fitness.
My doctor recommended the Macmillan charity (then called Cancer Backup) and I found them a brilliant help. These were pre-internet days, and they ran a phone line where you could speak directly to cancer nurses. It was fantastically reassuring to have all my questions about treatment and possible side-effects answered.
Chemo made me terribly nauseous, and my sense of smell went haywire. We went on a break to the seaside, and I couldn’t even get out of bed as I felt so awful. A trip to the local G.P. helped sort that out with a change of medication.
Cancer can be a very humbling experience
Looking back, I remember the experiences in hospital following the operation were often emotional and humbling and these things have fuelled choices I have made since. As well as seeing our amazing NHS and its wonderful staff at work, you learn about people and their strengths whilst sitting having chemotherapy with others and from seeing rooms full of supportive families and friends around those waiting for check-ups, scans, and blood tests. Illness is a leveller, an equaliser. You learn about yourself, you learn patience being a patient and realise the things that are of real value in life - loved ones, family, home.
I’m a teacher now and think the National Curriculum should include NHS hospital visits for young people to help them learn more widely about life, living with illness, and society.
Which size would you like, sir?
It has to be said though, there were some light moments during those difficult times. Whilst my surgeon was answering all my questions about the operation he asked me if I would like him to pop in a replacement prosthetic ball while he was about his work. With a preference for symmetry, I said yes. A box was opened offering a choice of ten or so new balls of various sizes for me to choose from, ranging from the size of a Cadbury mini egg to a full-sized Easter egg. Ah, you really have to laugh at the comedy of our bodies and all their varied shapes and sizes. I opted for a mid- range cream egg size!
Sterility was a possible side effect of chemo, and I was asked if I’d like to bank some sperm for freezing just in case. In the end this proved unnecessary and a couple of years after my operation my wife became pregnant with our daughter. Proof you can successfully fire on one cylinder.
Over the following decade I slowly began to be more open to talking about my diagnosis and treatment to others and to let go of all the fears and feelings that had prevented this. It is liberating when you can do it.
It’s great that today the public’s knowledge and understanding of cancer is far, far greater – its huge stigma lessened, and now I hope a thing of the past. In recent years a number of men in the public eye have courageously come forward to discuss their testicular cancer and its treatment. This has led to not only to a greater awareness of the cancer, but to it being openly discussed by men, who also seem to have got the health message that we should check our balls with greater regularity. I hope anyone with pain, lumps or worries feels able to speak openly to others and speedily get checked.
Talk to your mates, be open with them, discuss your fears. You’ll be surprised how much support this will provide. Real openness is the key to true friendships.
If you feel physically awful after treatment, don’t hang around thinking that’s just how things have to be. Go and see your doctor, a change of medication could quickly help.
If all goes as well as it can, which it mostly does, the memory of diagnosis, treatment,
and all the fear and worry will recede. I often actually forget that I ever had cancer.
I’m John, a father of three, grandfather of five, including twin boys who one day I hope will be star players for Chelsea Football Club. I am an Art School teacher, book lover, and proud renter of an allotment.
I was diagnosed with seminoma germ cell tumour Testicular Cancer at age 35, which is nearly thirty years ago now.
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