This section provides information about testicular cancer. This includes its causes, risk factors, symptoms, how it is diagnosed and the different types of testicular cancer treatments available.
About testicular cancer
Testicular cancer is a relatively rare form of cancer. It tends to only affect men between the ages of 15 and 49.
Your testicles are two small oval shaped organs that hang underneath your penis in a sac of skin called the scrotum.
Testicles are part of the male reproductive system. From puberty, your testicles produce sperm, which can fertilise the female egg. This makes your testicles a crucial part of the reproductive cycle.
Testicular cancer facts:
- Young or middle-aged men are the groups most affected by testicular cancer.
- Testicular cancer survival is improving and has increased in the last 40 years in the UK. This is likely because of combination chemotherapy, which uses more than one medication to kill cancer cells.
- 1 in 215 UK males will be diagnosed with testicular cancer in their lifetime.
- Testicular cancer is one of the most treatable forms of cancer if it’s detected early. The disease represents around 1% of all the cancers diagnosed in men.
Types of testicular cancer
The most common type is known as germ cell testicular cancer, which accounts for around 95% of all cases. Germ cells are a type of cell within your testicles that help to create sperm.
There are two main subtypes of germ cell testicular cancer. These are:
Seminomas and non-seminomas often respond well to chemotherapy.
Some rarer types of testicular cancer include: leydig cell tumours (around 1-3% of cases), sertoli cell tumours (around 1% of cases) and lymphoma (around 4% of cases).
Causes and risk factors
The causes of testicular cancer aren’t known, but there a number of factors that can increase your risk of having it. These include:
- If you have a family history of testicular cancer;
- If you are between 15 to 49 years of age. Studies show that 85% of cases fall within this age range. The average age of diagnosis is around 33;
- If you’re born with undescended testicles (cryptorchidism). Around 1 in every 25 boys are born with undescended testicles. This is when the testicles are not in their usual place in the scrotum. Usually, testicles descend into the scrotum during the first four months of life, and
- If you smoke. Research shows long-term smokers are twice as likely to develop testicular cancer compared to non-smokers.
Testicular cancer symptoms and diagnosis
The most common symptom of testicular cancer is a lump felt in your testicle, but there are other symptoms of testicular cancer, which include:
- swelling in a testicle, usually painless. Sometimes the swelling may suddenly increase in size and become painful, and
- A dull ache or pain, or heaviness in your scrotum.
If testicular cancer is advanced and has spread to your lymph nodes or other parts of your body, some of the following symptoms may be felt:
- Pain in your back, groin, or lower abdomen. This is possibly caused by the spread of the cancer to lymph nodes in the abdomen;
- A cough, breathlessness, or difficulty swallowing if lymph nodes in your chest area or your lungs are affected, and
- Nipple tenderness or swelling (gynaecomastia). This is not a common symptom, but can be caused by hormones produced by the cancer.
Testicular cancer can be easier to treat if it’s found early. This is why it’s important to check your testicles at least once per month for anything unusual, like a lump or swelling.
By checking your testicles regularly, you get to know what feels normal for you. The best time to check your testicles is during or after a warm bath or shower, when the scrotum is soft and relaxed. Cup your scrotum gently in the palm of your hand, and carefully use your fingers and thumb to feel each testicle for lumps, anything unusual, or differences between your testicles.
A normal testicle should feel smooth and firm, but not hard. Remember that it’s normal for the testicles to be slightly different in size and for one testicle to hang lower than the other.
If you feel anything unusual, it’s important that you get it checked out by your doctor as soon as possible.
Diagnosing testicular cancer
It’s important to know that most testicular lumps are not cancerous, but you must have the lump checked. This is because any treatment for testicular cancer is much more effective when it’s started earlier.
As well as asking about your symptoms, your GP will carry out a physical examination of your testicles. If your GP suspects the lump in your testicle may be cancerous, you will be referred for one or some of the following tests:
A scrotal ultrasound scan is a painless procedure that uses high-frequency sound waves to see inside your testicle. It is one of the main ways your health professional can tell whether or not the lump is cancerous (malignant) or non-cancerous (benign).
To confirm any diagnosis, you might need a series of blood tests to detect certain hormones in your blood, known as 'markers'. Testicular cancer often produces these markers, so having them in your blood may be an indication that you have the disease.
To confirm a case of testicular cancer, you’re likely to require a biopsy of the tumour, so that cells can be examined in a laboratory to determine whether or not the tumour is cancerous.
For most cases, the only way to safely take a biopsy is to remove the affected testicle completely. This is because specialists consider the risk of the cancer spreading to be too high for a conventional biopsy.
If your specialist feels it necessary, you might need more tests to see if testicular cancer has spread. If cancer of the testicle spreads, it commonly affects the lymph nodes and lungs, so you may require a chest X-ray to check for signs of a tumour.
Stages of testicular cancer
After your tests, your doctor or consultant will tell you what stage your testicular cancer is at. This describes the size of your tumour and how far it’s spread, and will influence the type of testicular cancer treatment you’re offered.
There are four stages of testicular cancer:
- Stage one – the cancer is contained inside your testicles
- Stage two – the cancer has spread from the testicles into the lymph nodes in your abdomen and pelvis
- Stage three – the cancer has spread into the lymph nodes in your upper chest
- Stage four – the cancer has spread into another organ, such as your lungs.
Testicular cancer treatment
If you are diagnosed with testicular cancer, the treatment plan you are recommended will depend on two factors:
- whether you have a seminoma or a non-seminoma
- the stage of your cancer.
Regardless of the stage, for all cases of testicular cancer, the first treatment is usually to surgically remove the affected testicle (this is called an orchidectomy). An artificial testicle (called a prosthesis) can be inserted at the time of orchidectomy – your specialist will discuss this with you.
In stage one non-seminomas, close follow-up (called surveillance) is recommended, or a short course of chemotherapy, depending on the risk of recurrence.
In stage one seminomas, after the testicle has been removed, a single dose of chemotherapy is usually given to help prevent the cancer returning, and sometimes a short course of radiotherapy is recommended. Increasingly stage one seminomas are also being managed with surveillance.
In stage two and three cancers, three to four cycles of chemotherapy may be needed, also further surgery to remove any affected lymph nodes.
To treat stage four cancer, additional surgery may also be required after chemotherapy to remove tumours from other parts of the body, depending how far the tumour has spread.
Even if testicular cancer recurs it can often be very successfully treated.
Paying for your treatment
You have two options to pay for treatment. Your costs may be covered by your private medical insurance, or you can pay for yourself. Check with your private medical insurer to see if your diagnostic costs are covered under your medical insurance policy. If you are paying for your own treatment, the cost of the procedure will be explained and confirmed in writing when you book your operation.
Ask the hospital for a quote beforehand, and ensure that this includes all of your Consultants’ fees and hospital charges for your diagnostics and procedure.
Want to know more?
If you’d like to read more about testicular cancer, treatment or living with testicular cancer, please visit cancerresearchuk.org.uk.
Read more about how to check your testicles for testicular cancer.
Need to speak to a Consultant about your testicular health? Call us on: 080 101 0337, or make an online enquiry.