Testicular cancer is a disease in which cancer cells are discovered in one or both testicles. The testicles, also known as testes or gonads, are located in a pouch beneath the penis called the scrotum.
The testicles make up one portion of the male reproductive system. Normally, they are each somewhat smaller than a golf ball in size and are contained within the scrotum. The testicles are a man's primary source of male hormones, particularly testosterone. They also produce sperm.
There are several types of cells contained in the testicles, and any of these may develop into one or more types of cancer. Over 90% of all testicular cancers begin in cells called germ cells. There are two main types of germ cell tumors in men: seminomas and nonseminomas. Seminomas make up about 40% of all testicular germ cell tumors. Nonseminomas make up a group of cancers, which include choriocarcinoma, yolk sac tumors, embryonal carcinoma, and teratoma.
Although testicular cancer accounts for less then 2% of all cancers in men, it is the most commonly seen cancer in young men aged 15 to 35. It is also one of the most curable.
The American Cancer Society estimates that approximately 7,200 new cases of testicular cancer will be diagnosed in 2001. In addition, about 400 men will die of the disease during that year. Though the incidence of testicular cancer is rising, having doubled in the last 30 years, it is still rare. Scandinavian countries have the highest rate in the world. Germany and New Zealand also have high rates. The lowest incidences of testicular cancer are in Asia and Africa.
Causes and symptoms
The exact causes of testicular cancer are unknown. However, there is research showing that some men are more likely to acquire it than others. The risk for testicular cancer is much higher for boys born with one or both of their testicles located in the lower abdomen rather than in the scrotum. This condition is called cryptorchidism or undescended testicles. The lifetime risk of getting testicular cancer is four times higher for boys with cryptorchidism than the risk in the general population. This risk factor remains even if surgery is done to place the testicle back into the scrotum.
There are other risk factors as well. Men who have had abnormal development of their testicles are at increased risk, as are men with Klinefelter's syndrome (a disorder of the sex chromosomes). A family history of testicular cancer increases the possibility of getting the disease. Men infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), especially those with AIDS, have a higher incidence, as do infertile men. Certain testicular tumors appear more frequently among men who work in certain occupations, like miners, oil workers, and utility workers. There is no conclusive evidence that injuries to the testicles, or environmental exposure to various chemicals causes the disease.
Testicular cancer usually shows no early symptoms. It is suspected when a mass or lump is felt in the testes, although a testicular mass does not always indicate cancer and is usually painless.
Symptoms of testicular cancer include:
- a lump in either testicle (usually pea-sized, but may be as large as a marble or an egg)
- any enlargement or significant shrinking of a testicle
- a sensation of heaviness in the scrotum
- a dull ache in the groin or lower abdomen
- any sudden collection of fluid in the scrotum
- tenderness or enlargement of the breasts
- pain or discomfort in a testicle or in the scrotum
When a man exhibits symptoms that suggest a possibility of testicular cancer, several diagnostic steps will occur before a definitive diagnosis is made.
History and physical
The physician takes a personal and family medical history and a complete physical examination is performed. The doctor will examine the scrotum as well as the abdomen and other areas to check for additional masses.
If a mass is found, the physician will likely have an ultrasound performed. Through the use of sound waves, ultrasounds can help visualize internal organs and may be useful in telling the difference between fluid-filled cysts and solid masses. If the tumor is solid, it is most likely cancerous.
Certain blood tests can be helpful in diagnosing some testicular tumors. Tumor markers are substances often found in higher-than-normal amounts in cancer patients. Some testicular cancers secrete high levels of certain proteins such as alpha-fetoprotein (AFP), human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), and enzymes like lactate dehydrogenase (LDH). These markers may help find a tumor that is too small to be felt during a physical examination. In addition, these tests are also helpful in determining how much cancer is actually present, and in evaluating the response to treatment to make sure the tumor has not returned.
If a suspicious growth is found, a surgeon will need to remove the tumor and send it to the laboratory for testing. A pathologist examines the testicular tissue microscopically to determine whether cancer cells are present. If cancer cells are found, the pathologist sends back a report describing the type and extent of the cancer. In almost all cases, the surgeon removes the entire affected testicle through an incision in the groin, though not through the scrotum. This procedure is called radical inguinal orchiectomy.
Once testicular cancer is determined, further tests are necessary to find out if the cancer has metastasized (spread) to other parts of the body, and to ascertain the stage or extent of the disease. This information helps the doctor plan appropriate treatment. These tests may include computed tomography (CT scan), lymphangiography (x rays of the lymph system), bone scans, and chest x rays.
From diagnosis through treatment and follow-up, several health care professionals participate in the care of the person with testicular cancer. Patients usually seek help from their primary physician after first noticing the lump or other suspicious symptom. A referral to the urologist will follow. The urologist usually performs any diagnostic tests as well as any necessary surgery. A pathologist makes the definitive cancer diagnosis by looking at the cells under a microscope. After the diagnosis is made, the patient will usually see a medical oncologist. If it is determined that radiation therapy is appropriate treatment, a visit to the radiation oncologist is recommended as well. Specially trained nurses will administer chemotherapy if necessary.
Clinical staging, treatments, and prognosis
One method the cancer treatment team uses to describe the scope of a patient's cancer is the use of a
Stages of testicular cancer:
- Stage I. This stage refers to a cancer found only in the testicle, with no spread to the lymph nodes or to distant organs.
- Stage II. This indicates that the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in the abdomen, but not to lymph nodes in other parts of the body.
- Stage III. In this stage, the cancer has spread beyond the lymph nodes in the abdomen, and/or the cancer is in parts of the body far away from the testicles, such as the lungs or the liver.
- Recurrent. Recurrent disease indicates that the cancer has come back after it has already been treated. Testicular cancer can come back in the same testicle (if it was not surgically removed) or in some other body part.
The treatment decisions for testicular cancer are dependent on the stage and cell type of the disease, as well as the patient's age and overall health. The four kinds of treatment most commonly used are surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and bone marrow or stem cell transplantation.
Surgery is normally the first line of treatment for testicular cancer and involves the removal of the affected testicle. This procedure is known as a radical inguinal orchiectomy. Depending on the type and stage of the cancer, some lymph nodes may also be removed at the same time, or possibly in a second operation. This procedure is called a retroperitoneal lymph node dissection, and can be a major operation. Some patients will experience temporary complications after surgery, including infections and bowel obstruction. If both of the testicles are taken out, a man will have no ability to produce sperm cells and will become infertile (unable to father a child). Surgery removing the lymph nodes may cause some damage to nearby nerves, which may interfere with the ability to ejaculate. Men undergoing surgery for testicular cancer may wish to discuss nerve-sparing surgery with their doctor, as well as sperm banking.
Radiation therapy for testicular cancer is delivered from a machine and is known as external beam radiation. One potential problem with this type of radiation is that it can also destroy nearby healthy tissue as well as cancer cells. Other potential side effects include nausea, diarrhea and fatigue. A special device can be used to protect the unaffected testicle to preserve fertility.
Chemotherapy refers to the use of drugs in treating cancer. Since the drugs enter the bloodstream and circulate throughout the body, chemotherapy is considered a systemic treatment. The drugs primarily used in the treatment of testicular cancer are cisplatin, vinblastine, bleomycin, cyclophosphamide, etoposide, and ifosfamide. These drugs are given in various combinations, since the use of two or more drugs is considered more effective than using only one drug.
Since chemotherapy agents can affect normal as well as cancerous cells, several side effects are possible. These side effects include:
- nausea and vomiting
- changes in appetite (anorexia)
- temporary hair loss (alopecia)
- mouth sores
- increased risk of infections
- bleeding or bruising
- diarrhea or constipation
Several drugs are available to assist in treating these side effects, most of which will disappear after the treatment is completed. However, some of the chemotherapy
Studies are ongoing to determine whether high doses of chemotherapy combined with stem-cell transplantation will prove effective in treating some patients with advanced testicular cancer. In this treatment, blood-forming cells called stem cells are taken from the patient (either from the bone marrow or filtered out of the patient's blood). These cells are kept frozen while high-dose chemotherapy is administered. After receiving the chemotherapy, the patient is given the stem cells through an infusion. This treatment enables the use of extra large doses of chemotherapy that might increase the cure rate for some testicular cancers.
Preferred treatment plans by stage of disease
Stage I: Stage I seminomas are normally treated with a radical inguinal orchiectomy followed by radiation treatment aimed at the lymph nodes. More than 95% of Stage I seminomas are cured through this method. Another approach is to perform surgery only. Patients are then followed closely for several years with blood tests and imaging studies. If the cancer spreads later on, radiation or chemotherapy can still be used. Stage I nonseminomas are also highly curable with surgery, followed by one of three options. These options include the performance of a retroperitoneal lymph node dissection, two cycles of chemotherapy, or careful observation for several years.
Stage II: Stage II seminomas and non-seminomas are cured in 90% to 95% of the cases. For the purposes of treatment, stage II testicular cancers are classified as either bulky or nonbulky. Nonbulky seminomas (no lymph nodes can be felt in the abdomen) are treated with an orchiectomy followed by radiation to the lymph nodes. Men with bulky seminomas have surgery, which may be followed by either radiation or a course of chemotherapy. Nonbulky Stage II non-seminomas are treated with surgery and lymph node removal, with possible chemotherapy. Men with bulky disease have surgery followed by chemotherapy.
Stage III: Stage III seminomas and non-seminomas are treated with surgery followed by chemotherapy. This produces a cure in about 70% of the cases. Those who are not cured may be eligible to participate in clinical trials of other chemotherapy agents.
Recurrent: Treatment of recurrent testicular cancer is dependent upon the initial stage and the treatment given. This might include further surgery and chemotherapy. Many men whose disease comes back after chemotherapy are treated with high-dose chemotherapy followed by bone marrow or stem cell transplantation.
Alternative and complementary therapies
There are currently no scientifically proven alternative treatments known for testicular cancer. Nothing has been shown to be as successful as conventional treatment. However, some patients may find certain alternative or complementary treatments supportive while undergoing surgery, chemotherapy or radiation. For example, meditation and relaxation exercises may prove effective in reducing nausea and vomiting. Some dietary modifications and nutritional supplements may be helpful in assisting with recovery after surgery. The testicular cancer patient considering alternative treatments should talk it over with members of the cancer care team. They may be able to offer additional information.
Coping with cancer treatment
Coping with the effects of cancer treatment can often prove challenging. One of the most common effects of treatment is fatigue. The man going through treatment for testicular cancer should allow time for recovery, and not rush back to normal activities. Eating a balanced diet of healthy foods may be helpful as well. Enlisting friends and family members to aid with transportation and responsibilities at home is another way of
Important research into testicular cancer is ongoing at many medical institutions around the country. Scientists are examining the changes that occur to the DNA of testicular cancer cells, in order to improve their understanding of the causes of the disease, and to find more effective treatments. Clinical trials are a method for doctors to explore new treatment options. For example, stem cell transplantation is being studied as one way to help men with recurrent cancer or a poor prognosis. Various chemotherapy regimens are being tested to find out if changing doses or specific drugs might reduce the incidence of side effects without reducing the effectiveness of treatment. For information on specific clinical trials, patients may ask the cancer care team or get a list of current clinical trials from the National Cancer Institute (see Resources.)
The main risk factors associated with testicular cancer—cryptorchidism, family history of the disease, and being Caucasian—are unavoidable since they are present at birth. In addition, many men diagnosed with the disease have no known risk factors. Because of these reasons, it is not possible to prevent most incidences of testicular cancer.
For many men, testicles are symbolic of manhood, and the removal of one can lead to embarrassment, or fear about a partner's reaction. Indeed, after surgical removal, the affected side of the scrotum does look and feel empty. To correct this, a patient can have a testicular prosthesis implanted in his scrotum. This prosthesis looks and feels like a real testicle, and the surgical procedure usually only leaves a small scar.
Nichols, Craig R., et al. "Neoplasms of the Testis." In Cancer Medicine, 5th ed. Hamilton, Ontario: American Cancer Society, 2000.
"Curable Cancer: Testicular Malignancies are Easy to Find and Treat. But You Have to be Willing to Probe a Bit." Time 154 (September 6, 1999): 85.
"Early Diagnosis is Key to Treatment." USA Today Magazine 129 (October 2000): 10.
Kirchner, Jeffrey T. "Family History as a Risk Factor For Testicular Cancer." American Family Physician 57 (March 15, 1998): 1419.
"Testicular Cancer—What to Look For." American Family Physician (May 1, 1998): 1.
American Cancer Society. (800) ACS-2345.
National Cancer Institute. Cancer Information Service. (800) 4-CANCER.
American Cancer Society Cancer Resource Center. (June 19, 2001). <http://www3.cancer.org/cancerinfo>.
Beeson, Dr. Debra. "Commentary: Testicular Cancer Common ly Seen in Younger Men." Cancer News (April 12, 2000). (June 19, 2001) <http://www.ontumor.com/cancernews_sm/testicular041200.htm>.
National Cancer Institute CancerNet. (June 19, 2001). <http://www.Cancernet.nci.nih.gov.>.
The Testicular Cancer Resource Center. (June 19, 2001).
Deanna Swartout-Corbeil, R.N.
Metastatic testicular cancer
—Testicular cancer that has spread to other parts of the body.
Radical inguinal orchiectomy
—Surgical procedure performed to remove one or both testicles. It is done via a groin incision.
—Also called testes or gonads, they are part of the male reproductive system, and are located beneath the penis in the scrotum.
QUESTIONS TO ASK THE DOCTOR
- How do I perform a testicular self examination?
- What kind of testicular cancer do I have?
- What treatment choices do I have?
- What side effects can I expect from my treatment?
- How long will it take me to recover?
- What are the chances that the cancer will come back?
- Is there a chance I will become infertile?
Table Of Contents
- Causes and symptoms
- History and physical
- Blood tests
- Treatment team
- Clinical staging, treatments, and prognosis
- Coping with cancer treatment
- Clinical trials
- Special concerns
- Metastatic testicular cancer
- Radical inguinal orchiectomy
- QUESTIONS TO ASK THE DOCTOR