fbpx When It Comes to Testicular Cancer, Do as I Say, not as I Did
two pink orbs with bright red dots on a pink and purple marbled background

When It Comes to Testicular Cancer, Do as I Say, not as I Did

A survivor who ignored a testicle lump shares his story. If you feel something, say something.
Written by

Connor O'Leary

My mom was driving me to the bank. I had a deposit to make. How embarrassing. Oh, did I fail to mention I was 19 years old and she was driving me to the sperm bank? Yeah. It gets better or worse. When I was done submitting my semen sample, my mom asked, in a chipper mom voice, "How was it?" Kill me now.

The reason for this cringe-inducing episode? I had recently been diagnosed with testicular cancer.

Testicular cancer is known to many people as "the young man's cancer." It can strike in the midst of some of the most carefree and memorable times of a person's life. Take a minute and think about the day-to-day stressors you faced during your high school and college years. I'm willing to bet that cancer, or dying from an illness, was not at the top of the list.

For me, the stressors were trivial: girls, a rogue pimple, school dances, football games, friends and excelling at my passion, cycling.

Time flies at that age, and fear of missing out is more real than ever. Spending a weekend grounded by your parents for getting pulled over after driving 103 miles per hour in a 65-mph zone was just about as crushing as losing a limb (or getting cancer).

Trust me, I know. I have first-hand experiences with cancer and that speeding ticket.

At the age of 19, testicular cancer was the last thing on my mind. I was a professional cyclist, racing and training in Europe, living my best life. I was young, healthy and as fit as humanly possible.

Discovering a lump on my testicle

While in Europe, I noticed a lump on my testicle but brushed off the feeling that "something wasn't right." I wasn't privy to the facts about testicular cancer or its early warning signs. Nobody in my family had experienced the disease or communicated the importance of a self-exam.

I didn't know it was the most common cancer in males ages 15 to 35. The average age at diagnosis is 33, and about 6 percent of cases occur in children and teenagers.

In a brilliant move, I let months go by without addressing that lump. Subsequently, I found myself experiencing back pain, fatigue and a substantial decrease in my cycling performance. The team finally flew me back to the United States to see a doctor to figure out what was going on.

It was testicular cancer.

When the doctor uttered those three words, "You have cancer," my mind immediately started to race. The first question that should have flown through my teenage brain was "Am I going to die?" It wasn't. My mind flashed from "Is my cycling career over?" to "Am I going to miss the U.S.A. National Championships next week?"

I was more worried about what I was going to miss out on than dying and the repercussions a cancer diagnosis could bring. I realize that is likely due to teenage naivete, not knowing the reality or gravity of the situation, but that was my thought process (and it is likely the same for many people diagnosed at a young age).

Treating testicular cancer

I quickly underwent an orchiectomy, a simple surgery that is usually the first step after a testicular cancer diagnosis. It's a procedure to remove the cancer-infected testicle, a fairly routine outpatient surgery with few complications.

The doctor found evidence my cancer had spread, so chemotherapy immediately followed. It consisted of four rounds of the most common regimen of chemotherapy, called "BEP," which is a cocktail that consists of three different chemo drugs: bleomycin, etoposide and platinum.

If you're wondering, the experience of going through treatment was a tad worse than that $700 speeding ticket, traffic school and being grounded for multiple weekends.

Chemo sucked.

Having a bald head in the dead of winter was incredibly inconvenient. The nausea, loss of appetite and bag of bones I became were also less than ideal.

But I did recover.

Fortunately, my trip to the sperm bank proved to be a mere backup plan. I didn't need the sperm and am now the happy father of three children, all conceived naturally. When I went to get my sperm count and health checked when my wife and I decided to start trying to have children, my doctor's response was unforgettable.

He told me, "That gun is loaded; be careful where you point it."

Testicular cancer and/or its treatment, such as chemo, can lower a man's sperm count and cause infertility. Many men consider cryopreservation of sperm before the start of treatment to avoid potential problems if they want to father children after they are cancer-free.

As a 19-year-old, having children wasn't something I considered. As such, I am grateful to my mom for helping and forcing me to make decisions on matters I was so nearsighted on. I didn't need the sperm I banked, but I'm glad I had that sperm as an insurance policy. I am a huge advocate for all guys to consider sperm banking after a testicular cancer diagnosis.

Raising testicular cancer awareness

All joking aside, what really cut me to the core after my diagnosis and treatment was watching my friends continue on with their lives, relationships, college and cycling careers. It ate at me that if I would have detected it earlier, if I would have known to conduct a monthly self-exam, it's possible that a simple orchiectomy could have been the only treatment I needed.

I know now that an early diagnosis not only increases the chances of survival to more than 99 percent, it often eliminates additional surgery and treatments.

My point is this: If the thought of being sick and having radioactive poison coursing through your veins, of being split open from sternum to belly button from a retroperitoneal lymph node dissection (RPLND), of losing your hair and strength and suffering the potential long-term side effects of cancer cannot get you or a loved one to perform a monthly self-exam, then maybe the thought of losing your precious time can.

Maybe missing out on that football game, those weekends with your friends, those college experiences and putting your passions on hold could convince you to take a few seconds in the shower to be sure everything feels normal.

There is no question a cancer diagnosis is scary and can impact everyone differently, both during and after treatment. I will say, looking at the statistics, the odds are in your favor if you are diagnosed, even at a later stage.

Stay hopeful, find resources and don't be shy about finding some one-on-one support, or even a virtual support group. It will change the way you look at your diagnosis and treatment.

I am extremely grateful to be healthy and living a full life post-treatment. It has been more than 10 years now, and I have accomplished more than I could imagine after cancer. I returned to professional cycling, participated on the CBS show "The Amazing Race," graduated college, and got married and had children.

If you are diagnosed, I am a testament that there is life after cancer. A good life, a life worth living.

I wouldn't ever want to go through a cancer diagnosis again, but my experience taught me about myself, my capabilities, what it means to suffer and how precious life truly is. Young men need to understand how simple a testicular cancer diagnosis can be.&

I can't get the time back that I lost from delaying my diagnosis and brushing off "that lump," but I have since dedicated my time to ensuring other young males know what I didn't.

Take 60 seconds and perform a monthly self-exam and encourage a friend or loved one to do the same.

Connor O'Leary is a testicular cancer survivor and an advocate for awareness about the disease. He lives in Salt Lake City and is the chief mission officer for the Testicular Cancer Foundation.