I remember my doctor commending me on how calm I was after he told me the giant lump in my testicle was cancer.
I’m glad he thought so, but really I was just waiting until he left the room so I could quickly Google the difference between “malignant” and “benign.” At the time, it honestly never occurred to me that I might have cancer: I’d always considered myself a hypochondriac, but somehow the C-word was too big for even a veteran panicker like me to conjure up.
During a routine physical at a free clinic, a doctor examined my crotch and told me it looked like I had a “sack of worms” down there. (Even then, I ventured to guess that wasn’t the preferred medical term.) But he explained that the condition—which I later discovered was a varicocele of the testicle—was no big deal, other than I might not be able to father children. I was in my 20s and uninsured, but his nonchalant attitude made it clear that nothing was wrong, so I didn’t give it another thought.
I figured I needed to sort out how to take care of myself first before stressing over not being able to have kids, anyway. As my left testicle began to grow larger and larger—eventually bigger than an egg but smaller than an avocado—I just assumed it was connected to the “sack of worms” situation and remained unconcerned.
Eventually I got insurance and decided to tell my new doctor about my lump. (Mostly because my rogue nut no longer fit properly in my underwear, and I found that to be mildly inconvenient.) She didn’t even have me pull down my pants before she said she wasn’t sure what it was. I suggested she take a look. (I don’t like telling anyone how to do their job, but it just seemed like an important step in the process.) After examining my big ball, she still didn’t know what was wrong.
As we later found out, what was wrong was cancer, so her casual assessment is still disconcerting, to say the least. But that’s how it went down.
A few weeks later, a friend asked me if I was starting to bald. (Because that’s what friends are for?) His casual question sent me to another doctor in a panic for Propecia and, while I was there, I mentioned my giant ball. And since everyone practices medicine differently, this doctor actually wanted to take a look—and he didn’t like what he saw. He instantly sent me for an ultrasound.
When the nurse saw the tumor she almost burst into tears. She couldn’t believe a doctor would send me away with such an obvious problem. And so, in November 2014, just a few months after my 30th birthday, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
Time stood still. I was definitely in shock, but the doctors and people in my life kept commenting on how relaxed I seemed. Which is weird because not worrying has never really been my forte: I stress about the important things in life, like not having the time to put new music into the proper iTunes playlist.
As a kid I worried scientists would discover a way for men to get pregnant and panicked over how badly giving birth would hurt. I worried about being sick on my wedding day, even though I wasn’t even in a long-term relationship.
But when I found out I had cancer, the worrying stopped.
Suddenly, I no longer had to be anxious about arbitrary worst-case scenarios—I just had to face the actual terrible thing that was right in front of me. And, it turns out, that’s something I’m able to do.
As horrifying as cancer can be—and I was blessed to have an experience much easier than many—you face it in steps. I suddenly had a to-do list. It felt never-ending, but at least they were things to do. Tangible things to fight the disease in my body.
When a fear is just in your mind, it is big and powerful. All-consuming, even. There’s nothing you can do to fight it because it isn’t real. You can’t fix a problem that doesn’t actually exist. But a real monster can be faced head on, which I did, with a levity that my friends and family didn’t expect. I lose sleep over fear of getting a head cold, but when I was told I had cancer, I made a few casual jokes and got down to business.
I did worry I was putting on too brave a face. I certainly didn’t want people thinking I didn’t want sympathy and attention! But everyone around me was fantastically supportive. I had surgery to have the testicle removed and did two rounds of chemo as a preventative. (Yes, I went to the doctor to prevent hair loss and ended up needing chemotherapy instead. The irony is not lost on me.)
Now I go for monthly checkups to make sure everything is still healthy. The whole ordeal may have only lasted a few months, but the lessons I learned will hopefully stay with me for the rest of my life.
It helped me realize I was spending too much energy thinking about everything that was wrong in my life. I was focused on the things I wanted to change, but was too worried about the arbitrary “What ifs” to actually attempt to change them. Sitting in hospital waiting rooms can have a profound effect on you. I started to have gratitude for all the things that were right in my life. As it turned out, there were a lot more of those than I realized. I just had to stop worrying long enough to see them.
Now my biggest worry is how to conjure up another fake laugh when my oncologist jokes for the millionth time, “Is your other ball getting lonely?” But he usually laughs enough for the both of us, so even that is working itself out.
When I first told people about my diagnosis, all the men immediately wanted to know how I discovered I had cancer. It might not be comforting to hear it took three doctors until I actually did, but it doesn’t have to be that way for you. Regular self-checks are essential: Hold the testicle between the thumbs and fingers and roll it gently with both hands. You’re looking for lumps or bumps, or any change in size or consistency.
Be aware of your body. Get checked regularly. But above all, don’t wait for something like cancer to make you live your life focused on What Is, rather than What If.
Every November, the Movember campaign raise awareness of men’s health issues. For more information on testicular cancer and to find support within the LGBT community, visit the National LGBT Cancer Project.