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Testicular cancer occurs in the testicles (testes), which are located inside the scrotum, a loose bag of skin underneath the penis. The testicles produce male sex hormones and sperm for reproduction. Compared with other types of cancer, testicular cancer is rare. But testicular cancer is the most common cancer in American males between the ages of 15 and 34. Testicular cancer is highly treatable, even when cancer has spread beyond the testicle. Depending on the type and stage of testicular cancer, you may receive one of several treatments, or a combination. Regular testicular self-examinations can help identify growths early, when the chance for successful treatment of testicular cancer is highest.

Causes of Testicular Cancer

  • It's not clear what causes testicular cancer in most cases. Doctors know that testicular cancer occurs when healthy cells in a testicle become altered. Healthy cells grow and divide in an orderly way to keep your body functioning normally. But sometimes some cells develop abnormalities, causing this growth to get out of control — these cancer cells continue dividing even when new cells aren't needed. The accumulating cells form a mass in the testicle.
  • Nearly all testicular cancers begin in the germ cells — the cells in the testicles that produce immature sperm. What causes germ cells to become abnormal and develop into cancer isn't known.

Signs & Symptoms of Testicular Cancer

Signs and symptoms of testicular cancer include:

  • A lump or enlargement in either testicle
  • A feeling of heaviness in the scrotum
  • A dull ache in the abdomen or groin
  • A sudden collection of fluid in the scrotum
  • Pain or discomfort in a testicle or the scrotum
  • Enlargement or tenderness of the breasts
  • Unexplained fatigue or a general feeling of not being well

Cancer usually affects only one testicle.

Diagnosis of Testicular Cancer

Most men discover testicular cancer themselves, either unintentionally or while doing a testicular self-examination to check for lumps. In other cases, your doctor may detect a lump during a routine physical exam.

To determine whether a lump is testicular cancer, your doctor may recommend:

  • Ultrasound. A testicular ultrasound test uses sound waves to create a picture of the scrotum and testicles. During an ultrasound you lie on your back with your legs spread. Your doctor then applies a clear gel to your scrotum. A hand-held probe is moved over your scrotum to make the ultrasound image. An ultrasound test can help your doctor determine the nature of any testicular lumps, such as if the lumps are solid or fluid filled. Ultrasound also tells your doctor whether lumps are inside or outside of the testicle. Your doctor uses this information to determine whether a lump is likely to be testicular cancer.
  • Blood tests. Your doctor may order tests to determine the levels of tumor markers in your blood. Tumor markers are substances that occur normally in your blood, but the levels of these substances may be elevated in certain situations, including testicular cancer. A high level of a tumor marker in your blood doesn't mean you have cancer, but it may help your doctor in determining your diagnosis.
  • Surgery to remove a testicle (radical inguinal orchiectomy). If your doctor determines the lump on your testicle may be cancerous, he or she may recommend surgery to remove the testicle. Your testicle will be analyzed in a laboratory to determine if the lump is cancerous and, if so, what type of cancer.

Treatments of Testicular Cancer

The options for treating your testicular cancer depend on several factors, including the type and stage of cancer, your overall health and your own preferences. Treatment options may include:

Surgery
Surgery to remove your testicle (radical inguinal orchiectomy) is the primary treatment for nearly all stages and types of testicular cancer. To remove your testicle, your surgeon makes an incision in your groin and extracts the entire testicle through the opening. A prosthetic, saline-filled testicle can be inserted if you choose. You'll receive anesthetics during surgery. All surgical procedures carry a risk of pain, bleeding and infection.
You may also have surgery to remove the lymph nodes in your groin (retroperitoneal lymph node dissection). Sometimes this is done at the same time as surgery to remove your testicle. In other cases it can be done later. The lymph nodes are removed through a large incision in your abdomen. Your surgeon takes care to avoid severing nerves surrounding the lymph nodes, but in some cases severing the nerves may be unavoidable. Severed nerves can cause difficulty with ejaculation, but won't prevent you from having an erection. In cases of early-stage testicular cancer, surgery may be the only treatment needed. Your doctor will give you a recommended schedule for follow-up appointments. At these appointments — typically every few months for the first few years and then less frequently after that — you'll undergo blood tests, CT scans and other procedures to check for signs that your cancer has returned. If you have a more advanced testicular cancer or if you're unable to adhere closely to the recommended follow-up schedule, your doctor may recommend other treatments after surgery.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a treatment option that's frequently used in people who have the seminoma type of testicular cancer. Radiation therapy is also used in certain situations in people who have the nonseminoma type of testicular cancer. Radiation therapy uses high-powered energy beams, such as X-rays, to kill cancer cells. During radiation therapy, you're positioned on a table and a large machine moves around you, aiming the energy beams at precise points on your body. Side effects may include fatigue, as well as skin redness and irritation in your abdominal and groin areas. You may experience infertility as a result of radiation therapy. However, as the treated area heals, you may regain your fertility.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy treatment uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs travel throughout your body to kill cancer cells that may have migrated from the original tumor. Your doctor might recommend chemotherapy after surgery. Chemotherapy may be used before or after lymph node removal. Side effects of chemotherapy depend on the drugs being used. Ask your doctor what to expect. Common side effects include fatigue, nausea, hair loss, infertility and an increased risk of infection. There are medications and treatments available that reduce some of the side effects of chemotherapy.

Prevention of Testicular Cancer

There's no sure way to prevent testicular cancer. Some doctors recommend regular testicle self-examinations to identify testicular cancer at its earliest stage. Not all doctors agree, though, so discuss testicular self-examination with your doctor if you're unsure about whether it's right for you. If you choose to do a testicular self-examination, a good time to examine your testicles is after a warm bath or shower. The heat from the water relaxes your scrotum, making it easier for you to find anything unusual.

To do this examination, follow these steps:

  • Stand in front of a mirror. Look for any swelling on the skin of the scrotum.
  • Examine each testicle with both hands. Place the index and middle fingers under the testicle while placing your thumbs on the top.
  • Gently roll the testicle between the thumbs and the fingers. Remember that the testicles are usually smooth, oval shaped and somewhat firm. It's normal for one testicle to be slightly larger than the other. Also, the cord leading upward from the top of the testicle (epididymis) is a normal part of the scrotum. By regularly performing this exam, you will become more familiar with your testicles and aware of any changes that might be of concern.
  • If you find a lump, call your doctor as soon as possible. Testicular cancer is highly treatable, especially when identified early.

When to seek Medical Advice

See your doctor if you detect any pain, swelling or lumps in your testicles or groin area, especially if these signs and symptoms last longer than two weeks. Make an appointment with your doctor even if a lump in your testicle isn't painful. Only a small percentage of testicular cancers are painful from the outset.


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