What Is Testicular Cancer? Symptoms, Treatments, and Prevention
Testicular cancer is a health condition affecting both young and older males. It is relatively rare compared to other cancers. However, it is the most common type of cancer among males between the ages of 15 to 35.The condition starts when abnormal cells form in the testicles, eventually causing a tumor (a lump or growth) to form. Because these cells will continue to grow and spread, they can eventually affect other organs and cause serious complications.
The good news is that the most common types of testicular cancer are highly treatable. About 9 in 10 males who develop the condition make a full recovery. However, it’s very important to see your doctor immediately if you notice any signs or symptoms that could point to testicular cancer.
Types of Testicular Cancer
The testicles are two small male reproductive organs protected by a sac of skin called the scrotum. Anyone born with testicles can get testicular cancer. There are several different types of cancer that can develop inside the testicles.
Most cases of testicular cancer start in the germ cells. Germ cells are produced in small tubes within the testicles, known as seminiferous tubules. These cells mature into sperm but can sometimes grow too quickly and form a tumor instead.
Germ cell tumors (GCT) are either seminomas or non-seminomas, and both types occur at about the same rate. Some GCTs contain cells of both types, but these are grouped with non-seminoma tumors.
Seminoma tumors grow slowly and are more common in middle-aged males. Most people who develop seminomas are between the ages of 25 and 45. Spermatocytic seminomas, a rare type of tumor, are more likely to occur in older adults in their 60s.
Non-seminomas grow more quickly than seminomas and usually develop between the late teens and early 30s.
Symptoms of Testicular Cancer
Like most cancers, testicular cancer doesn’t always cause noticeable symptoms right away. The most common sign of testicular cancer is a lump or painless swelling on one of the testicles. Even a small bump the size of a grain of rice could be a sign that a tumor is forming. Other symptoms can include:
- Pain in the scrotum and testicles
- Fluid collecting in the scrotum
- Heaviness or aching in the lower belly or scrotum
- Fatigue or weight loss
In most cases, testicular cancer won’t cause any pain unless the cancer is in the advanced stages. Early puberty can also be a sign of testicular cancer in young children.
If you feel any changes in your testicles, you should make an appointment with your doctor right away. Several other health conditions can cause similar symptoms, so it’s important to stay calm and get a diagnosis as soon as possible.
How To Check for Testicular Cancer
It’s a good idea to get in the habit of checking your testicles regularly for any changes, regardless of your age. A testicular self-exam involves feeling each testicle thoroughly for lumps or bumps.
- Grip the top of the scrotum on one side gently with your thumb and finger, ensuring you can feel the cord that attaches to the testicle.
- Move your other hand up and down the testicle on all sides. You shouldn’t need to apply much pressure to feel any bumps on the surface.
- Repeat the process on the other side to examine the other testicle.
Note that the epididymis, which carries sperm, is on top of the testicle at the back and feels like a lump. The epididymis is not a tumor!
If you are confused about how to correctly do a testicular self-exam, ask your doctor at your next visit to teach you. It’s best to get this instruction directly from your doctor.
Exams will be more successful right after a shower or bath when the skin is relaxed, and you can feel the surface of the testicle more easily. Do a testicular self-exam once a month so you’ll know as soon as possible if a lump develops. Starting at puberty is the best way to make self-exams a habit.
Testicular cancer occurs when genes within a cell mutate and continue to divide, causing a mass of abnormal cells that the body cannot use. However, there are lots of potential causes that aren’t fully understood. Most of the time, a doctor won’t be able to tell why a person has developed testicular cancer.
With that said, there are some risk factors that can make developing testicular cancer more likely. These include:
- Family history of testicular cancer in your father or brother
- Age—testicular cancer is most common in men 15-35 years old
- Having an undescended testicle or testicle development issues—when the testicles do not descend or develop normally, there is a slightly higher risk of developing testicular cancer
- History of inguinal hernia repair as a baby
How to Prevent Testicular Cancer
Unfortunately, there’s no way to ensure that you won’t have testicular cancer someday. The best way to protect yourself is to keep up with regular self-exams and look for early signs and symptoms.
Testicular cancer is rare, but it’s important to remember that anyone with testicles can develop a tumor. Catching any changes early can make treatment easier and more successful.
Call your doctor immediately for an appointment if you notice a lump or mass or have other testicular cancer symptoms. They will want to conduct an exam and perform tests to check for cancer.
Your doctor might recommend starting with an ultrasound. This type of imaging will allow the doctor to locate a mass if there is one, and it can get more information, such as if the mass is solid or filled with fluid.
You may need a blood test. This will allow your doctor to look for elevated levels of specific substances in your blood that can indicate cancer, such as tumor markers. Doctors use blood tests along with other diagnostic tools to confirm or rule out cancer before beginning treatment.
Testicular Cancer Treatment
The standard treatment for testicular cancer is a surgery known as a radical inguinal orchiectomy, which is the removal of a testicle. Since most people with testicular cancer only have cancer cells in one testicle, the other is left alone to continue producing important hormones.
Once the doctor removes the testicle, they may perform additional tests to confirm whether or not the tumor is cancerous. These tests will also determine what kind of tumor it is.
Even after treatment, you will likely need more testing. This is to find out what stage (how advanced) the cancer was at the time of the surgery, which can be 0, I, II, or III based on the International Germ Cell Cancer Collaborative Group-based clinical staging.
Your doctor may use a computerized tomography (CT) scan to see whether the cancer cells have spread. Additional blood tests might also help your doctors learn more.
The treatment you receive will be based on the type of testicular cancer, the stage of your cancer, and how far it has spread. If your cancer is in the early stages, you may not need further treatment after surgery. If the cancer has spread, you might need additional surgery to remove lymph nodes. Some people need radiation and chemotherapy, depending on the type of testicular cancer they have and what stage it is. After you’ve received treatment, your doctors will monitor you for signs of the cancer spreading or returning.
Getting help from your primary care doctor should be your first step if you think you might have testicular cancer or have questions about how to do the self-exam at home. After your doctor performs a history and physical exam, they might refer you to an oncologist, a type of doctor specializing in cancer. Most people with testicular cancer recover, so stay optimistic while waiting for your appointment.
Some people who are ultimately diagnosed with testicular cancer appreciate the support of groups for cancer survivors and their personal support network. Getting a diagnosis of testicular cancer can be overwhelming. However, your doctors will help you choose the best treatment options.
- “What is Testicular Cancer?” via the American Cancer Society
- “Signs and Symptoms of Testicular Cancer” via the American Cancer Society
- “How to Do a Testicular Self-Exam” via KidsHealth
- “Testicular Cancer” via Mayo Clinic
- “Testicle Cancer” via StatPearls
- “Testicular Cancer Pathogenesis, Diagnosis and Endocrine Aspects” via Journal of Cancer Survivorship