What is testicular cancer and what are the symptoms?
An integral part of the male reproductive system, the testicles are contained within the scrotum and produce male hormones such as testosterone as well as sperm. They play an important role in the development of masculine characteristics such as a deep voice, beard growth, muscle develop and the ability to have an erection, all of which are driven in some way by the production of testosterone.
Some men may experience no symptoms at all, but there are a number of recognisable signs that could suggest testicular cancer is present. The most recurrent symptom of testicular cancer is a hard lump either on the outside or inside of the testicle. This is usually a hard lump of tissue distinguishable from the rest of the testicle, and is very rarely painful.
Similarly, you may notice swelling or enlargement of the testicle rather than a lump. If the testicular cancer is causing pain it may also be accompanied by a dull ache or a feeling of heaviness. This can also cause discomfort in the abdomen area. In rare cases testicular cancer can cause abnormal growth of the male breasts, which is due to the cancer producing high-levels of hormones. The breasts may also feel sore and sensitive.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms then you should be assessed by a doctor or specialist as soon as possible. There could be a number of underlying causes for the symptoms, many of them non-cancerous. Swelling in the testicle could be down to a torsion, whereby the testicle becomes twisted inside the scrotum and restricts the blood supply. Injury and infection can also cause the testicle to swell, whilst inguinal hernias are often mistaken for lumps on the testicle.
How is testicular cancer diagnosed?
Self-examination is one of the first and most important steps in any diagnosis, and specialists recommend that men perform a testicular self-exam at least once a month to closely monitor any signs of testicular cancer.
It is relatively easy to carry out a testicular self-exam by feeling the testicles during a shower or bath (when the skin has softened). You should roll the testicles gently with your fingers, looking for any abnormal lumps or changes in shape. Only by examining them regularly can you properly monitor if anything changes in the testicles. You should also be aware that the scrotum contains a range of blood vessels and connective tissues, which many men often confuse for an abnormal growth.
If you do find anything different, are experiencing pain or are unsure about any changes you feel in the testicles, you should consult a health provider as soon as you can. They can perform a range of physical examinations in the testicle area, the groin and the abdomen, and will ask a series of questions about your symptoms. If anything suspicious is found you will likely be sent for further tests. This will usually involve an ultrasound scan, which can pick up any tumour or growth on the testicle. Blood tests can also help diagnose testicular cancer by highlighting whether there are any high levels of certain proteins in the blood which may indicate that cancer is present.
A biopsy may also be carried out, which involves the surgical removal of part of the tumour. This sample is then sent for analysis to confirm the presence of cancerous cells. Many surgeons are reluctant to perform a biopsy for testicular cancer as the surgery itself risks spreading the cancer further, and it is usually only carried out when a definitive diagnosis cannot be obtained from the ultrasound and blood tests.
What causes testicular cancer?
There is no agreed consensus for what exactly causes testicular cancer. It can develop in men of all ages, ethnicities, professions and lifestyles. There are, however, a range of risk factors which make some men more likely to develop testicular cancer.
Men are more likely to develop testicular cancer if they:
- Have a family history of testicular cancer
- Have an undescended testicle, which occurs at birth when one or both of the testicles do not move from the abdomen into the scrotum.
- Are white – men of white ethnicity are around four times more likely to develop testicular cancer than black or asian men, though the exact reason for this is unknown.
- Are HIV positive
- Are in bad physical shape. Studies suggest that men who are physically active are less likely to develop testicular cancer.
How is testicular cancer treated?
How much does testicular cancer treatment cost?