April is Testicular Cancer Awareness Month. I assume this is new information for most individuals reading this column. In fact, I only became aware of this information because, a little over a month ago, I was diagnosed with Stage I testicular cancer. Now, not that there’s ever a “good” type of cancer, but as far as these situations go, this was pretty positive news. It meant the cancer had not spread and I would be able to have surgery the next day to completely remove the tumor. The surgery was successful and, according to the doctors, my brief fight with cancer was likely over.

I was incredibly lucky to have caught the tumor so early on; I was in the hospital for an unrelated injury (falling on hard ice during a broomball tournament) when they found the cancerous mass during an ultrasound. I was lucky I lived only five minutes away from the University of Michigan hospital, an excellent medical facility filled with even more excellent medical professionals. I was lucky the doctors and nurses asked the right questions, performed the right tests and decided to perform more in-depth examinations than they needed. I was lucky they found the tumor before it had spread, and that I didn’t need to go through chemotherapy or radiation.

I am writing this article because I am fully aware of how incredibly lucky I was; most people don’t just stumble upon a tumor, especially before their condition becomes more serious. In the weeks following this ordeal, I’ve learned a ton about testicular cancer, including information that would provide other young men the ability to identify if they are at risk for the disease and should go see a doctor without needing to rely on luck (or an accidental trip to the hospital).

Of the many interesting facts I learned about testicular cancer, the most striking to me was that it is the most common form of cancer among young men, with most individuals diagnosed between the ages of 15-35. I can only speak for myself, but cancer was certainly not on my radar a month ago, or really any other life-threatening diseases for that matter. I was a healthy, 21-year-old student, and there wasn’t much in my life that a few ibuprofen and some duct tape couldn’t fix.

In talking with my male friends after this experience, I’ve found nearly all of them share a similar mindset. Testicular cancer is not something they actively think about or are routinely checking for. Though the self-check process that leads to early identification of a tumor is relatively quick and simple, almost none had ever examined themselves. In fact, many did not even know how to perform the procedure in the first place (full disclosure, neither did I until recently).

So what can we do about this? How can we make sure men are able to identify this disease early on and seek proper treatment, rather than leaving it up to chance like I had?

Well first off, if you’re a young man, do yourself a favor and learn how to perform a self-check. This can lead to early detections and an increased likelihood that if you do happen to discover a tumor, immediate action can be taken before more intensive care is needed and risks become higher.

Have the conversation with your peers and help destigmatize what is admittedly an uncomfortable topic. Yes, I still chuckle at the word “testicle” (because it’s funny, even at 21 years old), but there is nothing unnatural or unmasculine about discussing your health and helping to create awareness regarding a topic that affects more of your peers than you might think. Talking with friends and family over the past few weeks, I have found out several men in my life have successfully fought testicular cancer, and yet there is still something taboo whenever the topic is brought up.

Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned is to listen to your body and err on the side of caution when deciding whether to see a medical professional. I believe this lesson applies to many issues beyond testicular cancer, whether it be that nagging cough that won’t go away or a weird bump that wasn’t there previously. While our days may often feel so busy and hectic that we can barely find time to eat lunch, let alone go to the doctor, it is important to make time for your health. Even if you do go to the emergency room, wait two hours to get admitted and spend another hour getting checked out only to receive a healthy verdict, please don’t feel as if you wasted your time. You just received confirmation that you are in fact healthy, and can sleep well at night knowing this. On the off-chance there is in fact something wrong, you can go ahead and get treatment before your situation escalates. While ignorance may be bliss in some instances, not being aware of a health issue doesn’t guarantee its nonexistence. 

I never thought I’d be having this conversation, let alone writing a column about my experience with testicular cancer. A month ago, I was lying in a bed in the hallway of the U-M hospital, listening to a doctor say a stream of words I can barely recall, feeling a combination of scared, confused and, perhaps most of all, powerless. Fortunately, I get to tell the story of an extremely blessed case of early detection and treatment. While I hope no one reading my column experiences this illness, I hope that if you do, you are able to find out early and on your own terms. That you can have the conversation with friends and share your story, knowing you are not alone in dealing with this. By talking about testicular cancer, or any health issues for that matter, we can better share information about detection, providing more individuals the opportunity to feel in control of their futures.

For more information and resources about the disease, I highly recommend checking out the Movember Foundation, a men’s health non-profit that is doing amazing work to raise funds and share resources about this disease, as well as other men’s health issues.

Matthew Friend can be reached at mjfri@umich.edu.

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