Why You Should Check Your Partner for Testicular Cancer—and How to Do It
Jimmy and I were luxuriating in bed one lazy weekend morning in December 2012 when I blurted out: “Why is one ball bigger than the other?”
I know, sexy, right?
Yes, there are an infinite number of more tactful ways I could have gotten this point across. Or, you know, I could have just kept my mouth shut. But at the time, I thought little of posing such a brash question. Keeping my mouth shut isn’t really my strong suit (something he thankfully already knew well by then), and I clearly didn’t stop to consider that some guys are simply uncomfortable with a mention of the size of anything down there.
In my health journalist mind, I figured just as my breasts have been slightly different sizes since the beginning of their existence, there had to be similar subtleties among male organs, too.
But unlike me and my intimate knowledge of my boobs, Jimmy was taken aback by my observation. He felt around south of the border for a bit before concluding it was probably no big deal—and we promptly got back to more exciting activities. But the moment stuck with him, and a few days later, when he noticed an unfamiliar sensation in his family jewels, he went to see his doctor.
After a number of tests, scans, and a second opinion over the course of that holiday season (and you thought your Decembers were stressful!), he was scheduled for surgery early in January 2013 to remove his left testicle. Lefty, as it is now somewhat affectionately called, underwent further testing, confirming doctors’ hunches: Jimmy had stage 1 testicular cancer.
People who have heard this story before are often quick to point out that had I not spoken up, Jimmy may not have been diagnosed until a later stage of the disease. I can't take any credit for his proactive, thorough, and level-headed approach to his own health, and I assure these folks that I'm not some kind of savior. Intimate partners are familiar with each other's bodies in all sorts of ways, and I'm certainly not the first woman to urge a man to take care of himself.
“It’s often men’s partners pushing them,” agrees Michael A. Palese, MD, chair of urology at Mount Sinai Downtown-Union Square in New York City, who spoke with me recently about testicular cancer and wasn't involved in Jimmy's care. Testicular cancer is most common between ages 15 and 35, and it's young men in this age group who get a bad rap for things like skipping doctor visits, declining follow-up care, and neglecting nagging feelings that something might be wrong.
So why not take matters into—ahem—your own hands? There’s no routine screening test recommended for testicular cancer, but you can familiarize yourself with your partner's testicles so you can more readily spot something abnormal. While testicular cancer is considered highly treatable, it's still easiest to take care of when detected early, Dr. Palese says.
Wondering what you're looking for? Every month or every few months, feel around together. Shower time is an optimal opportunity, says Dr. Palese: The warm water means his testicles hang a big farther away from his body so you can get in there comfortably. “Gently roll the testicle between the thumb and one or two fingers, and feel for a symmetric, round structure,” Dr. Palese instructs. You want everything to feel "homogenous," he says, with no lumps or bumps.
Make sure the left and the right are roughly the same size; if they’re not, ask your guy if they’ve always been different. “Some men are born with one testicle larger than the other. That can be normal and doesn’t mean there’s something wrong,” Dr. Palese says. It’s worrisome, he adds, when the size disparity is a new development, like it was for Jimmy. Other signs of testicular cancer you can't see or feel for include achiness or pain in his back, groin, belly, or scrotum; abdominal bloating; or a heavy feeling in his scrotum.
If you think you’ve found something, talk to your guy lovingly and supportively—then have him bring it up with his primary care doctor first, Dr. Palese says. The doctor can refer him to a urologist for more testing if necessary. If your partner is 15 to 35, has a family history of testicular cancer, was born with an undescended testicle (he'll know if he was, Dr. Palese says), and is white, he's more likely to have testicular cancer.
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A urologist will likely do a testicular ultrasound and take blood to look for markers that a tumor is present. And if the two of you do end up hearing those dreaded words—"You have cancer"—treatment can include surgery, radiation therapy, and sometimes chemotherapy, Dr. Palese says. “Men often respond very nicely, even in dire situations with very late-stage cancers."
Jimmy was deemed cancer-free after that January surgery, and he remained that way during the following five years of bloodwork, X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans—and the accompanying time, money, and anxiety spent awaiting and attending these appointments.
A lot has changed in the five years since his diagnosis. For starters, we're no longer embarrassed to tell this story ("Congrats to us on the sex!" Jimmy says). We're getting married in October. He no longer needs extensive workups every few months, and we're frequently extolling the virtues of knowing each other's bodies. But most importantly, his risk of the cancer coming back has dropped significantly—to only slightly higher than the risk of any average man coming down with it a first time.