The year was 2005. I was 15 and in my 10th year of schooling. This was the year I threw up for the first time from tequila shots, first awkwardly kissed a girl at a house party, and I was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
We used to have family dinners where we would have interesting conversations inspired by my step-father's profession. As a GP, he had some interesting stories on a variety of topics, including uncomfortable prostate exams with embarrassed middle-aged men and drug addicts requesting pain medication for their "constant migraines". One particular night, we had a discussion about testicular cancer. He explained how important it is to self-examine your testicles to make sure there are no lumps. My brothers and I cringed and begged him to change the topic. Regardless, the conversation stuck with me.
Some months later, I was fondling myself as any male teenager does, and I noticed that something seemed different. There was a tiny speck the size of a grain of salt on my right testicle. I disregarded it, thinking that it must have always been there without me noticing. More time passed and it became a growing concern of mine. I started to wonder if it really had always been there. I considered going to a doctor, but I didn't want to tell my family because as everyone knows, it's extremely uncomfortable as a teenager to talk to your parents about anything sexually-related. Anyone who's been given the 'condom talk' knows this. I let it slip to the back of my mind.
At the end of that year, my school had a program to travel overseas for an eight-week tour. All the students had to undergo a medical examination before being accepted for insurance purposes. In the doctor's office, all I could think about was the opportunity I was now given to enquire about my concern. The appointment dragged on with the standard "breathe in deeply and hold" etc. My head was screaming "TELL HER". The session came to an end, I thanked her and headed to the door. My hand clasped the cold metal handle and I paused. I turned around and apprehensively told the doctor that there was one more thing I would like her to check. She told me to lie down on the examining table and remove my pants. She was the first woman to see my penis since hitting puberty. Embarrassment sunk in; my whole face went red as I sat there with my bits out. She had a feel and couldn't tell if anything was wrong, so she wrote out a form for me to have an ultrasound. I left the office, and in the car I told my mum. She wondered why I hadn't mentioned it sooner. It's not that simple when you are a teenager.
The ultrasound technician had just rubbed cold sticky goo onto my testicle and was examining the region on a screen. Before going in, I had thought there was definitely a sexual undertone to rubbing goo on someone's testicles. The overweight elderly lady technician put a stop to any of those thoughts and it became strictly a medical procedure. I kept asking if she could see anything, but she didn't have an answer. She just kept saying that the doctors would have a look at it after the examination.
A few days later I received a call to come in to the hospital. I found out that the results had come back inconclusive, and they would have to do invasive surgery to tell for sure. The one question they asked me was, if it turned out to be cancer and they needed to remove the offending testicle, would I like a replacement? Having 'balls' is seen as such an important representation of being a man. I couldn't imagine being different from other 'men'. I decided I would take the prosthetic if it became necessary. That way, I could still technically say that I had balls. No one had to know that one was a silicone insert.
Surgery day arrived. My mother drove me to the hospital and I went into the ward to have a final chat with the surgeon. Before he arrived, I had been feeling so calm that I leaned against the wall and activated an alarm button. Three panicking nurses rushed to respond to the blue alarm. Apparently that's the highest level of emergency in the hospital. Oops. They left, happy to know that it was just an accident. The surgeon then arrived and explained that they would examine me under general anaesthetic and if it was cancer, I would wake up with a new fake testicle. I then got changed into the hospital gown and an orderly wheeled me to the operating theatre. As the anaesthetist put the mask over my face, I joked about how there was no way the drugs would be able to put me to....... I woke up some hours later to find my mum in the room reading a book in the corner. At first I didn't know what was going on - standard operation side-effects. She then explained that they had found a malignant tumour in my right testicle and it had been removed.
When you get diagnosed with cancer at 15, other things seem much less important. Movies, parties, soccer games - they all literally become child's play as you are faced with the reality of your own mortality. At that age, dying usually isn't even a factor in your thinking. The average life span is around 80, and as kids, we just assume that we'll make it to near there. Now I had to deal with cancer.
I had an appointment with an oncologist during which we discussed the options. I was told that it had been caught in the earliest possible stage. Lance Armstrong had waited till his testicle turned the size of a "grapefruit" before even mentioning it to his doctor. Luckily, I had caught it before it had the chance to cause real damage. The doctor informed me that the cancer had not spread, but there was still a chance that it could. Option One was to commence chemotherapy to make sure the cancer cells had been completely eradicated. I immediately froze at the thought. I had been growing my hair for the past year and it was a beautiful length. I wanted to be known as the guy with the long hair, not the bald guy undergoing chemo. Option Two was to monitor my body regularly for five years. This was to include CAT scans, PET scans and regular blood screens. I got to the point where I was so used to them that I would happily watch the needle piercing my skin, to the confusion of the nurses. All I could think about was losing my hair, so I essentially based my decision around that. Never mind the devastating effects to my immune system and overall health, I was concerned about no longer looking like Jesus. The doctor thought it was a good option, considering the cancer had been caught so early and there was a low risk of it spreading.
Now I had to deal with outsiders.
I had informed all my immediate family members and received plenty of support, but I decided that it would be best to keep it a secret outside of that. I didn't want to be treated differently. I didn't want pity and I certainly didn't want people to think I was weaker. Most of all, I didn't want to be teased for having one testicle. I told the kids at school that I'd had a hernia operation and I would be home for two weeks. Upon returning to school, it felt weird at the start. I'd had a significant life experience and had decided not to tell even my closest friends. Everything back at school was so normal; the world always continues spinning no matter what. People asked if I was okay in the first week, but interest obviously died down quickly as a hernia isn't too serious. The regular tests continued and would consistently come back negative. After the pain died down, I guess you could say I had mild discomfort for the next few years. I was always very aware that I hadn't been born with one of my testicles. After finishing school, my friends were shocked as I told them one by one, some only finding out years later.
When five years had passed, the oncologist gave me the all clear. This meant that I was as likely to have cancer again as anyone else. I like to say that it's like chicken pox; you can only get cancer once. People don't always know that I'm taking the piss.
These days, the ordeal is just another chapter of my life that could have ended badly if I hadn't turned around and decided to speak up at the doctor's office that day. Instead, I now have a cool party trick that when the lights are off I can shine a torch behind my fake nut and it glows like an orb. Seriously cool. All the discomfort disappeared years ago and I have the same sperm count as any other healthy 26 year old. So guys, check your nuts and speak up, it might save your life.