The past few weeks have been the most intense, embarrassing and frightening weeks of my life, and it all began with the sentence: "Do you mind if a medical student sits in on your appointment?"
The only response I could muster was a flustered, "Absolutely, that sounds great". It did not sound great.
I shook the GP's hand. I shook the medical student's hand. And as I sat down in the tiny office, our knees all-but touching, I declared: "Anyway, there's something wrong with my testicles. Or just one of my testicles. I guess I can't tell which one anymore."
For the rest of the short appointment the medical student didn't look at me. Well, not in the eyes.
I was diagnosed with testicular cancer, an unusual little phrase I'm still not comfortable wrapping my head around.
Part of the reason it feels ridiculous to say is because I was diagnosed on a Wednesday. By the following Wednesday I was at home recovering from surgery. I didn't battle. I didn't fight or overcome. I was scared and embarrassed and then I was eating a room-temperature egg salad sandwich as the anesthetic wore off.
Testicular cancer is one of the most common cancers to affect men of all ages and the second most common affecting men aged 18 to 39. In the last several decades the rate of men diagnosed with testicular cancer has increased by more than 50 percent.
"It takes a few seconds to check your junk out, to feel what's normal, and to note if anything is out of the ordinary. Do it. Do it regularly, because this isn't a disease that discriminates."
The other fact is that the rate of survival, especially when caught early, is over 95 percent. But it's in your hands, quite literally.
By regularly feeling their balls men are able to keep their finger on the buzzer, noticing any swelling, lumps or unevenness, if there's pain in the scrotum, testicle or even abdomen. If it raises an eyebrow it's worth getting checked out. The prognosis of testicular cancer is incredibly positive, especially if you catch it early.
When I first noticed there was a difference in the size of my testes I did absolutely nothing. The idea of calling up, making an appointment to discuss my "private parts" felt humiliating. Those are supposed to be private! I couldn't bear the thought of it.
Then I began to feel a slight discomfort. A dull ache. That's when I realised things were escalating and the next day I was booked in for a check-up. All my fears, everything I was so embarrassed to encounter was even worse than I had possibly imagined.
As I laid on the GP's examining table, looking up at the ceiling, he said: "Do you mind if the medical student takes a look? I think it would be really great for him to see this."
"Absolutely," I said again, "if he really wants to, go for it... I guess."
Later I had to book an ultrasound. The woman on the other end of the call asked me "where for?" and I had to clarify if she meant which clinic or where on my body. "Oh, ha ha. Um. Testicles? Testes? The... yes." I said a little too loudly down the phone.
The ultrasound itself was even worse, as a young woman gave me a towel and told me to hold it across my lower half. I laid there, again looking up at the ceiling, feeling vulnerable and quite literally exposed.
She instructed me to inhale and exhale as she moved the ultrasound wand across my balls and then further up to my kidneys. "Inhale and exhale," she said as she asked me to turn onto my side, always keeping the towel firmly across me.
I wondered if I was going to cry. If I'd even have time to cry.
"Inhale," she said again, forgetting to let me know when to exhale.
"Hey, can I breathe out?" I asked, slightly dizzy. "Oh yeah," she said laughing. "Sorry". She told me to wipe myself down with the towel and when I was done she'd give me copies of the scans.
I rushed back home with the print-outs, ripped them out of the comically large envelope and looked intently at them, thinking about how I'd never learned to read an ultrasound.
Heading back to the GP I was greeted with the all too familiar, "Do you mind if a medical student sits in on your appointment?"
The medical student said it was nice to see me again. All I could think was, "Great, he remembers my balls."
When I thought I'd be embarrassed by simply going to a GP I never imagined having to endure a conversation about prosthetic testicles, something I've come to consider like erecting a confederate statue to commemorate the loser.
I didn't even think about the fact that the surgeon would draw an arrow on my groin, pointing to which testicle to remove -- you know, just in case things get confusing. I didn't even consider having to have my parents nearby when I shrugged, telling a urologist I wasn't really that concerned about infertility because I hadn't ever assumed I'd be in a successful relationship long enough to have kids.
The entire experience was surreal. Even now I'm not sure what to think. But if my days and days of having to expose myself to medical professionals has taught me anything it's that they couldn't give a toss. It was all routine to them. My balls were just textbook stuff.
As we amble toward Movember, a month dedicated to raising awareness for men's health, the most important thing you can do is not feel ashamed if you think something is awry down there. Make sure everything feels right and if it doesn't: get it checked out. That's all I can recommend. It might be scary, it might feel embarrassing, but it's a lot better than the alternative.
It takes a few seconds to check your junk out, to feel what's normal, and to note if anything is out of the ordinary. Do it. Do it regularly, because this isn't a disease that discriminates.
Before I was diagnosed I had always assumed testicular cancer was something that hits men later in life, and I couldn't have been more wrong. Maybe you're not as naive as I was, but I was genuinely shocked to learn just how common testicular cancer is in men of all ages.
As I now move on to grappling with the strange identity crisis of having cancer that was diagnosed and removed within seven days, all I can think is how lucky I was.
My whole experience was mortifying, occasionally hilarious, terrifying and, in the end, I only had one ball. So please, if you have two, check 'em both.Suggest a correction