Why it's so serious.
Aug. 7, 2000 -- I was 23 years old and invincible. Or so I thought. Then one day, playing softball in a suburb of Chicago, where I live, I got kicked in the groin by the nice guy playing shortstop. When I checked myself out in the shower later, I found what felt like a ball bearing inside my right testicle, as if one end were hardened.
So I did what most guys would do: I put it out of my mind. Or tried to. I couldn't believe it was anything serious. My wife and I had just married. We were closing on our first house. I was in the third month of a new job. Everything was going great.
Then I noticed the testicle was getting larger. Finally I made an appointment with my primary care physician -- and started what turned into a five-month battle.
The visit with my doctor took exactly 20 minutes. He set up an appointment with a urologist the next day who examined me, looked me in the eye and said, "You're a smart kid. I'm glad you came to see me."
When results from a blood test and an ultrasound came back, the urologist sat down with my wife and me and gave us the news: There was a 95% chance I had cancer. Getting kicked in the groin during the softball game hadn't caused the disease, of course; it had just prompted me to check things out in time to catch the tumor, which was already there. The testicle had to be removed right away, the urologist said. I couldn't believe my ears.
Just like that, I had become part of a trend: I had likely been stricken with a form of cancer that has, over the past three decades, increased in frequency an astonishing 60% (according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), striking mostly young men like me. The doctor probably told me that it was a very curable cancer, but I was in such a state of shock, I could barely understand what he was saying.
That next Monday -- just after moving into our new house -- I went in for surgery. I was home that afternoon, with a huge bandage on my crotch and a gigantic ice pack in my pants. The procedure, called an orchiectomy, involves removing the testicle through an incision in the groin. A week later the biopsy report came back: "Nonseminomatous mixed germ-cell tumor primarily consisting of embryonal carcinoma."
In other words: Cancer.
Luckily, the report said the cancer hadn't spread to my lymph nodes or bloodstream. Even so, I was faced with a tough decision. I could watch and wait to see if the cancer was truly cured. Or I could undergo what's called a retroperitoneal lymph node dissection, or RPLND. In short, a surgeon opens you up from below the navel to the middle of your chest, lifts your internal organs out of the way, and removes all the lymph nodes that could be cancerous if the tumor has spread.
The prospect terrified me. But so did the idea of doing nothing.
Surfing for Survival
I got on the Internet, looking for help and information. I found plenty of it, along with moral support. I also found out about Indiana University, known for its expertise in treating testicular cancer. I made an appointment, and a week later my wife and I hit the road.
I've since learned that testicular cancer is often misdiagnosed. The problem -- as I was about to learn firsthand -- is that because it's so rare, most doctors don't see it all that often. The ones back home had told me the cancer hadn't spread. But when the same slides were reviewed at Indiana University, the report indicated that, in fact, it had. I had learned one important lesson: Always get a second opinion. Always.
With this latest round of bad news, I decided to have the dreaded RPLND. I wanted to kill this beast while I had the upper hand.
At the age of 23, I never thought I'd have to make my peace with God. But on the morning of the surgery, I did. Saying goodbye to my wife before entering the operating room was hard enough. But one of the most difficult moments was when I saw my dad for the first time after surgery. He looked shaken, and as he took my hand, he asked in a low voice how I was doing. I gripped his hand as hard as I could and told him not to worry.
Feeling Like Burnt Toast
The six days I spent in the hospital were pretty tough. At first I needed help getting out of bed. By the third day, I was just beginning to feel better when my primary care doctor came to see how I was doing. He happened to mention in passing that my urologist had found one node that was positive for cancer. And then he left.
There I was, in the middle of a visit with my wife, when this guy walks in, drops a bomb, and then walks out. I was devastated.
My urologist laid out the situation the next day. There was a 70% to 80% chance that I was cured already. Two rounds of chemotherapy would raise those odds to 95%. I wanted the best odds I could get, but I'll admit it: I was really afraid of chemotherapy. Fear of the unknown, I guess.
The first couple of days on chemo were pretty easy. But by the end of the first week I felt horrible -- like burnt toast. The drugs had affected my hearing and made me feel like I was in a tunnel. The knuckles on my hands turned dark. My skin felt thickened. And I felt as if I had just smoked 100 cigars in a row -- my lungs hurt that badly. Then my hair started falling out.
In all, I did two rounds of chemotherapy, three weeks each. On Oct. 21, 1997, the treatments ended. I couldn't have been happier. Now it was time to get back to my life.
In an odd way, I feel lucky. Testicular cancer is among the most treatable ones around. But even though 95% of patients with the condition beat it and survive at least five years, according to the American Cancer Society, that still leaves 5% who don't. Men do die of this disease. And most of them are young and in the prime of their lives.
If I had waited much longer, my story might have ended differently. One key to beating this disease is detecting it early. That's why I tell everyone: If you think something is wrong, don't wait. Go to your doctor. Another key is following up to make sure it doesn't come back.
Since the surgery I've struggled a bit to get my life back in order. Sometimes I feel a little bitter that I had to go through this. But mostly I know that this experience made me realize what a gift my life is. I have a loving wife, a wonderful family, great friends, and all kinds of opportunities. And my wife and I just got the best gift possible. Our first child, a girl, is due to be born this November. (Just so you know: We conceived her the old-fashioned way.) Believe me, I'm planning to be around a long, long time to enjoy being a dad.
Erik Strand is a mechanical engineer in Plainfield, Ill., where he still enjoys playing softball.
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