It seems most men are born with a keen awareness of their anatomy below the belt (something that’s furthered only by age and exploration). But most doctors agree that guys should be taking even more solo action—namely by performing monthly self-checks for testicular cancer.
Not the kind of action you were thinking of, we know.
But if you’re between the ages of 15 to 45, it’s worth checking things out once a month for your health’s sake, says Ryan Berglund, M.D., a urologist at the Cleveland Clinic
Here’s why: While testicular cancer is fairly rare—The American Cancer Society puts a man’s lifetime risk at about 1 in 263 —young men from pre-pubescent age up through middle-aged are the most at risk. The American Cancer Society also estimates that about half of all cases of testicular cancer are in men between the ages of 20 and 34.
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Checks only take about a minute and the best place to do them is in the shower. Here, everything’s warm and your testicles are relaxed, hanging down, says Berglund. (The opposite scenario would be what freezing cold hockey rinks do to them; read: Not prime time for assessing irregularities.)
To get started, cradle one of your balls and roll it between your thumb and fingers firmly but gently. You’re feeling for any hard masses inside the testicles themselves. That’s an important distinction, notes Berglund, who says the biggest misconception about testicular cancer is that these masses grow on the outside of the testicles (they don’t).
“These masses originate from inside the testicle,” he points out. They can also be big or small, he notes—from the size of a pea to that of a marble or even much bigger. (A little anatomy also worth mentioning: Both testicles do have a small coiled tube called the epididymis at the back, which can sometimes feel like a small bump. That’s nothing to be worried about.)
But there are other signs to keep an eye out for, too—a big one being one testicle that seems to be suddenly larger than the other. Since it’s normal to have two different-sized balls (or one that hangs lower than the other), look for a change over time, suggests says Mark Preston, M.D., a urologic surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA. He’s seen guys with testicular cancer come in with one testicle the size of a grapefruit. “Testicular cancer grows quickly,” he notes. The change could be a doubling in the size of the mass over the course of a month.
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Remember this, too: “Testicular pain is not a leading symptom of testicular cancer,” says Berglund. “There are cases where there is pain—but pain is usually a sign of an infection.” Find a painful bump-in-question? Beyond testicular cancer, it could be a cyst, an infection, or even varicocele, swollen varicose veins in your testicles, says Preston.
But play it safe. “Most lumps, bumps, and irregularities are not cancerous, but they’re something worth paying attention to and seeking attention for,” says Preston. “The issue with a lot of these guys who are getting testicular cancer is that they’re ignoring it — it’s not like they haven’t felt the lump.”
If you feel one, call your doctor. Bergland notes that a physician will examine your testicles and also order a testicular ultrasound (a non-invasive test in which a probe runs over the testicles to see inside the mass). If you wind up with a diagnosis, treatment can range from removal of the affected testicle to radiation or chemotherapy if it’s spread.
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Fortunately, testicular cancer is highly-treatable and curable (the risk of dying from the cancer is about 1 in 5,000 and five-year survival rates—many of which include being cured– float in the 95 to 99 percent range).
But a lot of that comes down to catching the disease early and—because you reach down there more than anyone else—your one-minute self-checks.