Testicular cancer occurs when cells in the testicles, or testes, grow and multiply uncontrollably, damaging surrounding tissue and interfering with the normal function of the testicle. If the disease spreads, it is still called testicular cancer.
Testicular cancer occurs most often in younger men. It is the most common cancer in men between ages 20 and 34. However, it accounts for only 1% of all cancers that occur in men. When testicular cancer is detected early, there is nearly a 99% chance for cure.
There are two basic types of testicular cancer, each with several subtypes:
Germ cell tumors occur in the cells that produce sperm. Tumor types include:
Seminomas, responsible for 50% of all testicular cancer cases. They are generally slow-growing and very responsive to treatment.
Nonseminomas tend to grow and spread faster than seminomas. Tumor types include embryonal carcinoma (about 20% of all testicular cancers); yolk sac carcinoma (most common in infants and young boys); choriocarcinoma, a rare and extremely aggressive cancer; and teratomas.
Stromal tumors occur in the testicular tissue where hormones are produced. Stromal tumor types include Leydig cell tumors, which occur in the cells that produce male sex hormones, and Sertoli cell tumors, which occur in the cells that provide nourishment to germ cells.
Symptoms of testicular cancer vary and may include any of the following:
Many of these symptoms are not cancer, but if you notice one or more of them for more than two weeks, see your doctor.
Many risk factors for testicular cancer are unavoidable. In addition, many men have no known risk factors, which currently make it impossible to prevent most cases of testicular cancer. It’s important for men at average risk to be aware of symptoms and seek prompt medical attention if symptoms persist. Take time to discuss your own risks with your health care provider who can best advise you on the risk-reduction strategies that are right for you.
Many factors may influence the development of testicular cancer, including:
Most testicular cancers are found by men themselves, either unintentionally or through self-examination. Men who notice anything unusual about their testicles should consult a doctor. If exam results suggest cancer, more extensive diagnostic tests should be conducted.
Diagnosing testicular cancer almost always involves surgical removal of the testicle (orchiectomy). An incision is made in the groin rather than the scrotum, to avoid possibly spreading cancer cells. A tissue sample from the testicle is examined under a microscope to determine the presence of cancer cells and the stage of the disease.
Special blood tests that detect certain protein "markers" are used to diagnose and stage testicular cancer both before and after orchiectomy. These tests include:
Alpha-fetoprotein (AFP): elevated levels of this protein, which is normally produced by a fetus in the womb, may indicate the presence of a germ cell tumor in men.
Beta human chorionic gonadotropin (b-HCG): increased levels of this protein, normally found in pregnant women, can indicate the presence of several types of cancer, including testicular cancer.
Lactate dehydrogenase (LDH): this enzyme is related to increased energy production by the body's cells and tissues, which can sometimes indicate cancer.
Ultrasound may also be used before surgery to determine the presence of a mass on the testicle.
Surgery to remove a cancerous testicle is called orchiectomy. In most cases, orchiectomy is performed during testicular cancer diagnosis. The testicle is removed through an incision in the groin, and tissue samples are examined to determine the stage of the cancer.
For some patients, especially those with nonseminoma testicular cancers, surgery may also involve removal of lymph nodes in the abdominal area. Retroperitoneal lymph node dissection, or RPLND, is either done at the same time as the orchiectomy, or in a second surgical procedure. Standard RPLND requires a large abdominal incision and several days of recovery time in a hospital. This procedure can also be done with laparoscopy, a minimally invasive surgery technique that uses much smaller incisions.
Because both surgical procedures may affect fertility, and because most testicular cancers occur in young men, it's important for patients to discuss sperm-banking with their doctor. If the patient wants to start a family at some point, their sperm cells are collected before cancer treatment and frozen for future use.
For men who may be uncomfortable with their appearance after orchiectomy, they can have a prosthesis implanted in their scrotum that provides the look and feel of a real testicle.
Seminomas, which are the most common form of testicular tumor, are very sensitive to radiation treatment. In fact, the treatment dosage is only about one-third of that required for prostate cancer, and the treatment cycle is only two weeks.
Radiation is performed after surgery to remove the testicle (orchiectomy). If the tumor was a seminoma, the oncologist may choose "watchful waiting" to see if the cancer returns, or use radiation to treat the lymph nodes along the spine, where 20% of recurrences are located. Even if the cancer comes back, it is still very treatable with either radiation or chemotherapy in the majority of cases. Radiation treatment has an average recurrence rate of about 5%. Radiation can also be used after chemotherapy if any cancer remains.
Other types of testicular cancers are more resistant to radiation, and are more commonly treated with orchiectomy and removal of affected lymph nodes.
Chemotherapy is most often used in conjunction with surgery to remove the testicle. For men with advanced tumors that have spread beyond the testicle or metastasized to distant areas of the body, chemotherapy is administered after surgery to make sure all of the cancer cells have been destroyed.
Cancer is a journey that no one needs to take alone. There are many forms of support to help you through every stage: diagnosis, treatment and survivorship. Whether you meet with other cancer survivors like yourself, use complementary therapies or individual coping mechanisms, help is available in many forms. Listed below are just some of the ways to find help...and hope.
Getting together with other cancer patients in a support group is a valuable coping tool. Support groups are usually focused on a single disease or topic, such as breast cancer survivors or people coping with life-changing side effects from their cancer or cancer therapy. These groups allow participants to meet others like themselves and seek strength from each other. Most major cities and cancer hospitals offer support groups that meet weekly or monthly. There are also dozens of online support web sites or message boards for those who may not have access to a traditional meeting.
Complementary therapies are used in conjunction with cancer treatment, in an effort to reduce treatment side effects, ease depression and anxiety and help cancer patients take their mind off the negative aspects of their situation. Complementary therapies may include mind-body exercises like yoga, tai chi and Qi gong; visualization or guided imagery; using art or music as therapy and self-expression; and traditional Eastern medicine such as acupuncture.
Staying physically active as much as possible during cancer treatment has many positive benefits. Physical activity stimulates the release of endorphins, a hormone that helps elevate mood, as well as decreasing feelings of fatigue.
Exercises for cancer patients can range from simple stretches done in the bed or chair, to more active pursuits such as walking or light gardening work. However, it’s important not to push yourself too hard. Check with your doctor before attempting any physical activity to make sure you are up to it.
Many people find it helpful to keep a journal of their cancer treatment experience. It may be as simple as recording symptoms and side effects into a notebook, or may include personal emotions and opinions about what they may be going through. Journals can be private, like a diary, or shared with loved ones and even strangers.
Increasingly, people are turning to the Internet to share their cancer journey with the world at large and to seek out others with similar experiences. Many cancer patients have begun their own web log, or “blog” to publicize their battle with cancer. Twitter, a mini-blogging technology that limits posts to 140 characters, has also proven to be a helpful tool for cancer patients to keep friends updated and reach out to others.