In February 2015, Steven Petrow published an article in the Washington Post titled "Guys, here’s why it’s not worth testing yourself for a ‘lump’ down there", coming out against testicular self-exams (TSE) after having previously been supportive of them. His article responded to a "Today" show segment which aired late in 2014 featuring David Samadi, who is Chairman of Urology and Chief of Robotic Surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital, and is also a Fox News Medical Correspondent. On the "Today" show episode, Samadi gave testicular exams to anchors Willie Geist and Carson Daly on live television. What's surprising about the article is not just that such a view against testicular self-exams exists, but because Mr. Petrow himself is a twenty years and change survivor of advanced stage testicular cancer. I applaud and congratulate Mr. Petrow on reaching such a milestone. It's something that we cancer survivors take great pride in and stories like his are inspiring to so many of us, but I could not disagree more with his recommendation against TSE. Petrow thinks that it's "smarter" now to keep his hands to himself, but is it really?
Why Is there Even a Debate?
The original source of the recommendations against doing testicular self-exams comes not from Petrow, but rather from the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). The USPSTF recommended against testicular self-exams back in 2012, citing "moderate or high certainty that the service has no net benefit or that the harms outweigh the benefits". In his article, Petrow spoke with Kenny Lin, assistant professor of family medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center, who agreed. Lin said that even if self-exams were effective, that they'd have "little if any bearing on outcomes for those who are diagnosed." Lin went on to say that he thought the "Today" show episode was "a stunt cloaked as a health message." Petrow went through a brief discussion of benefits vs harm, but couldn't seem to find any benefits at all for the TSE. Much of the rest of the piece then focused on psychological biases as to why doctors (and patients) would still want such screenings despite there being "no benefits". Well, maybe they're looking at things the wrong way.
Problems with the Recommendation Against TSEs
One of the biggest problems with Petrow's article is the fact that no matter which type of cancer he was discussing, there was no mention whatsoever of cancer survivorship quality of life, or the overall wellness of a patient after cancer. He only looked at "surviving" cancer from the singular perspective of the net final outcome - whether the patient lived or died in the end. Because the "final outcome" isn't likely to change, don't bother with screenings or self-exams, goes this line of logic. If you get cancer, just go get chemotherapy or radiation, or whatever it is that you need, and get cured. As I wrote in my own lengthy blog post on this exact topic in June of 2014 titled, "The Value of Testicular Self-Exams and Early Detection from the Survivorship Perspective" this is a woefully incomplete, and dare I say even irresponsible perspective. We're so much more than just a binary "1" or "0" on someone's spreadsheet on whether we're alive or dead. We're very much analog creatures, and cancer survivorship itself is a million shades of gray.
Petrow stated in the article that he went through 4 rounds of chemotherapy and two surgeries to get cured, but didn't mention what, if any, long-term or possibly permanent side-effects he might have suffered as a result of this. As I wrote in my own blog last year, the potential for long-term health risks and permanent side effects when going through treatments for cancer are not to be underestimated. I've suffered a complete loss of fertility, for starters. Not having much if any feeling in my left foot is more minor and something that I've gotten used to over time, but more severe is the fact that I also suffer from chemo-induced peripheral neuropathy. I deal with chronic muscle fatigue issues to varying degrees every single day, and continue to have nerve pain issues that have never really gone away completely. Even after my cancer fight was over, I still had to keep fighting because one of my kidneys nearly failed due to a complication from the RPLND surgery that I went through. It took another year after my cancer fight, and tons of painful diagnostic procedures and stents to finally nurse my body and my kidney back to health. Even more troubling are the increased risks of developing a secondary cancer just from having been exposed to chemotherapy agents and/or radiation treatments. Patients who are exposed to either chemotherapy or radiation therapy have a two-fold increased risk of developing a secondary cancer compared to the general population, and a three-fold increased risk if a patient has been exposed to both types of treatments, according to studies. Mental health is also at stake. After fighting so hard, my mind eventually caught up with all that I and my body had been through, and I fell into a depression and suffered from post-traumatic stress for a year.
Testicular cancer tends to hit younger men, like myself, who have so much of their lives in front of them. They're going to have to live with these potential long-term side-effects of treatments for quite a long time, which is why it's so important to detect testicular cancer as early as possible. The earliest possible detection of cancer helps to minimize the amount of treatment needed, the potential trauma to both mind and body, and helps to maximize quality of life after cancer. It's important to be a "1" on that spreadsheet and to survive, but we can't take our eye completely off of the ball when it comes to the impact on quality of life that cancer treatments can have. Why would you not want to detect a cancer as early as you can via something as simple as awareness of the disease itself, and a virtually zero cost TSE? Is it really in the best interests of the general population to have people darn near on their death beds before being properly diagnosed? It doesn't make sense. Especially with testicular cancer, a rapidly advancing cancer, a pain or mass detected in the testicle via a TSE might be the only sign of testicular cancer one has before its had the opportunity to completely overrun one's body. This is why testicular cancer is sometimes referred to as the silent killer!
What Some Experts Really Think
One really needs to understand what's behind these USPSTF recommendations against many types of screenings. A trip across the Beltway and up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway from Georgetown, is The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Philip M. Pierorazio is an Assistant Professor of Urology and Oncology at the Brady Urological Institute there, and Director of the Division of Testis Cancer (Pierorazio is also a member of the TCAF board of directors). Pierorazio weighed in on the USPSTF recommendations on his own blog in a piece titled "Testicular Self-Exam: Why There Is Nothing Wrong with a Regular Feel". He writes, "It has to be conceded that there is no evidence that TSE is effective for the diagnosis of testicular cancer or helps find men at an earlier stage of disease. However, lack of evidence does not mean that TSE is not effective – it means that no study has effectively investigated the role of TSE in an at-risk population." (emphasis Pierorazio's) In his summary, Pierorazio respectfully disagreed with the USPSTF recommendations, stating that the recommendations are themselves based on very little existing evidence. "While the cure rate of testicular cancer is wonderful, the burden of the disease is greatly under-appreciated. Even if a free, painless self-examination leads to an unnecessary doctor's visit, saving one man from advanced disease is well worth the "risks and costs" of TSE.", concluded Pierorazio. In case you didn't follow, the issue is simply that there just hasn't been a formal study done to prove the effectiveness of TSE. It doesn't mean that they don't work or aren't effective. It just hasn't been proven that they're effective via a study. Thus, in the absence of a formal study either proving or disproving effectiveness, the USPSTF recommendation to "discourage the use" of the TSE is based on very little evidence as well!
I had a chance to speak with David Samadi personally on Petrow's article, and that "Today" show segment. Samadi shared the sentiments of Pierorazio and myself but in a slightly more vocal manner, stating that he felt the USPSTF recommendations against the TSE and screenings for other types of cancers were "a terrible mistake". While some of these screenings might not be perfect, he and others believe they're still effective tools that can change the final outcomes for patients, and that it's always better to catch a cancer at an earlier stage to minimize the treatments needed to cure a patient. I shared my personal story with Samadi, and that I had missed being able to pickup on my symptoms of testicular cancer for a few months. If only I had been more aware of the disease and how to do a proper TSE, I potentially could have caught my cancer at an earlier stage, and spared my body and my mind from the harsh treatments that were needed for me to get that cure. Samadi's response? "Exactly." Samadi went on to say in a statement that, "Given how common testicular cancer is in young men, we should be urging them to perform monthly self-exams. Young women are encouraged to perform monthly self-breast exams. Why shouldn’t men? Early detection begins with the patient. If he is aware of the risk factors, he will care about prevention. Self-exams are a no cost prevention method and if something is discovered, a simple ultrasound can tell us what’s happening." I agree with this double-standard, and had mentioned it myself. Women are encouraged to get to know the shape and feel of their breasts, but men are supposed to keep their hands off of their balls?
There's no finer authority on testicular cancer anywhere in the world than Lawrence Einhorn, a Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Lance Armstrong Professor of Medicine at the Indiana University. "Einhorn" is a household name in the oncology world, and a man who needs no introduction. Einhorn's work at Indiana University 40 years ago experimenting with the Cisplatin drug is what turned testicular cancer from a death sentence into the greatest success story in modern oncology, having been compared with walking on the moon! Einhorn's work has literally saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of men with testicular cancer, my own included. I reached out to Dr. Einhorn and asked if he could weigh in on the USPSTF recommendations against the TSE, asking if "men should really be discouraged from doing testicular self-exams?" Einhorn's response? "Not really." He went on to express skepticism on the effectiveness of a national policy for TSEs, citing the low overall incidence rate of testicular cancer, but he couldn't have been more clear on the importance of knowledge and awareness of the disease.
"Men should be aware there is cancer that can start in the testis and the presence of pain or a feeling of firmness in the testis should not be ignored", stated Dr. Einhorn.
I don't think there's a finer endorsement to be had on the topic of testicular cancer awareness and the TSE than from Dr. Einhorn. Men need to be educated and aware of the possibility of testicular cancer, and how to properly feel for any abnormalities via a TSE!
Move Forward With Education & Awareness, Not Backwards with FUD
The solution to the potential downsides of TSEs, such as the cost of false positives and fear and anxiety, is not to forego TSEs altogether, but rather to help minimize them with education and awareness. This is precisely what organizations like The Testicular Cancer Awareness Foundation are all about. We teach people about the signs and symptoms of testicular cancer, which will help men of all ages to understand what to look out for. Knowledge of how to do a proper testicular self-exam will help to familiarize them with their own anatomy, and establish the difference between normal and abnormal. Knowing all of this can help to minimize unnecessary office visits and expense, and cut down on stress and anxiety.
As for the true costs when an office visit is needed, Pierorazio weighed in on this in his blog also, citing a University of Kansas Medical Center study. The cost to treat an advanced stage testicular cancer with both chemotherapy and the RPLND surgery is equivalent to hundreds of office visits to look at a worrisome TSE. When cancer is detected (and actual masses that are detected in the testicle are almost always cancerous), the costs to treat earlier stage cancer enabled by awareness of the disease and TSEs, is a mere fraction of the costs to treat advanced stage testicular cancer. A mass can't always be detected in the testicle by self-exam in testicular cancer patients (a proper study on the TSE would help to better understand this), but in my case I did, and I wished I had given it a proper feel a few months earlier when it would have been at an earlier stage. Instead, my cancer advanced for several months to the point that I had to be treated with both chemotherapy and the RPLND surgery, and at great cost both in terms of the dollars required, and the impact to my body. A few ultrasounds that turn out negative are a drop in the bucket.
The "Cost" of Getting to a Doctor Too Late When It's Cancer
If there's one thing that I think most all of us could agree with Petrow on wholeheartedly, it's the fact that many men, and especially young men and boys, can be just plain shy or too embarrassed to talk about potential issues with their bodies when they notice them. In Petrow's article, he shared the story of one of his own doctors, who developed a case of hemorrhoids. Even his doctor was embarrassed, and delayed getting it checked out. Samadi would agree with the reluctance of men to go see doctors as well, and says it's not men but rather women who end up being the ones who finally get men into his office. "If you want a job done right, you give it to a woman,” said Samadi in a Forbes article. "Women are the most proactive healthcare champions in the family and are the driving force in men’s health. Time and again, it’s women who make the final push for their husbands, fathers, and brothers to come see me.” But we're talking about cancer screenings here, not hemorrhoids. The consequences of not getting to the doctor on time for what could potentially be cancer can be deadly.
In a call for comments on this topic on a testicular cancer support group, there were no shortage of comments from those who had lost loved ones, or those whose quality of life had been impacted. If only they could have picked up on the cancer sooner with either more awareness about the disease or with self-exams, maybe their loved ones might still be here, or their quality of life might not have suffered as much. In one post, Melia Elliot shared the tragic story of her son, Ben. As Ben grew into puberty he had noticed that one testicle grew larger than the other. Ben 'Googled' that this could be normal, and then never said a word to anybody. When other symptoms started to appear, a sign of very advanced stage testicular cancer, he was unfortunately misdiagnosed for nearly two months by doctors in their hometown of Joplin, MO, even after an ER visit and two follow-ups. It wasn't until Ben became paralyzed from the chest down that doctors finally realized that he had testicular cancer! Not trusting the doctors in Joplin to care for her son, she got Ben up to Kansas City where Peter Van Veldhuizen, who is a Professor of Internal Medicine and Director of the Hematology/Oncology Division at The University of Kansas Medical Center, started Ben on BEPx4 chemotherapy for advanced stage disease.
It turns out that I had conversed with Melia personally during this time via one of the Testicular Cancer support forums on the web. It sounded like the BEPx4 might not have been working, and I recommended that she get her son under Einhorn's care at Indiana University STAT. Ben's case sounded so dire that I insisted that she call Einhorn's office that day, and that it couldn't even wait until tomorrow. Too many mistakes had already been made prior to Ben's diagnosis, and too much time had already been lost. She made the call to Einhorn's office immediately, and Ben was rushed to get started on high-dose chemotherapy with stem-cell transplant under Van Veldhuizen's care and with Einhorn's guidance. Melia stated to me in a comment that the quality of care between Van Veldhuizen and Einhorn was exemplary, but it was just too late. Ben fought a hard and courageous battle, but died tragically 10 months from his diagnosis.
Testicular cancer is curable, but it's also a killer! Someone dies of the disease every day, and on that day it was Ben. Early detection remains the key, and knowledge and awareness about testicular cancer is so important, especially with teenage boys!
Guys, Keep Checking Your Nuts
Pierorazio's statement bears repeating. "lack of evidence does not mean that TSE is not effective – it means that no study has effectively investigated the role of TSE in an at-risk population." The recommendations by the USPSTF are themselves based on very little existing evidence. When prominent doctors with expertise specifically in testicular cancer continue to believe in the TSE despite what the USPSTF has said, I think the message is pretty clear.
All of us in the Testicular Cancer advocacy world know what the true "cost" is when you're too late. For Melia Elliot and her son Ben, the price was far too great. Samadi sums things up well in his bottom line. "Encouraging men to be more aware and preventive when it comes to common cancers could be the only chance we have to save their lives.” Women especially know just how stubborn men can be. Along with Dr. Samadi, we encourage women to be proactive and get involved in men's health issues. Take the #SamadiChallenge for Testicular Cancer and make sure that the men in your lives including your children are aware of men's health issues that could affect them, encourage them to perform self-exams, and seek the care of a doctor immediately if they notice something abnormal. And most of all...
Keep checking your nuts!
The doctors who really know Testicular Cancer say to.
Special thanks to Melia Elliot for her willingness to share the story of her son, Ben. Ben passed away on August 22, 2014.