Testicular cancer has become something of a joke: men kid about losing their testicles, women threaten them with it, and Adam Sandler’s desperate pleas on Saturday Night Live to “Give me cancer in the worst place” probably refer to the family jewels, at least sometimes! Any cancer, however, is no laughing matter – especially to the patient or survivor. If a friend has been recently diagnosed with testicular cancer, there are some things to understand.
This cancer has probably come during a hard time in his life. Any man can get it, no matter what their age, but testicular cancer most commonly affects men between the ages of 15 and 35. Those are the years when most men are in school, getting jobs, and either becoming romantically involved or settling down. In a way, that makes testicular cancer one of the biggest growing pains out there. Allow him to talk about these issues. (Despite the old stereotype that men never discuss their emotions, they often do!) Be comforting and understand what he wants. Sometimes, when a person vents, they aren’t looking for a quick answer or reassurance; they want to simply vent and grieve for a while before taking any action.
A major issue that faces many testicular cancer survivors is body image. For any women reading, think of losing a testicle as being similar to losing a breast: it is a direct symbol of sexuality being taken away, as well as something you’re so used to being there, and it makes a person feel vulnerable, among many other things. Depending on where he stands in his life, he may fear about future dates, worry that his current partner will have an issue with it, or lose his confidence at any age. Sometimes, survivors attempt to change the rest of their body to make up for the loss of a testicle. It is not uncommon to see symptoms of anorexia nervosa in survivors, so consider it during treatment and for years after. Learn the symptoms and understand ways to help. Other stresses on his body include hair loss, drastic weight changes, and overall weakness. After treatment, there is the possibility of testosterone issues and infertility. Leave room for him to talk about any of these things without judgment.
Mental issues play a large role in helping a testicular cancer survivor as well. Most men will have a treatment path of an orchiectomy (to remove the cancerous testicle or testicles), then either have surveillance, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy. It’s all traumatic, no matter what path. There’s uncertainty, fear of cancer spreading or returning, and the pain of treatment. Add this to the stress of everyday living, and it’s like putting a magnifying glass over an ant. Understand the symptoms of depression, anxiety disorder, and severe stress, as well as where to find help. If he starts to show any major symptoms, let him know that therapy is a common option that will help and doesn’t necessarily imply any problem.
Perhaps the two most important things a friend can do are to stick around and help him feel like nothing has changed. If he’s a sports fan, bring over some football tapes, even if he can’t manage to play a quick game with the buddies. Keep the usual activities you’ve always done and modify them slightly to fit what he’s capable of during treatment. Let him know you’re available when he needs it, and keep the lines of communication open. If he hasn’t called in a while, take initiative and call him yourself. One common complaint of cancer patients is that they feel abandoned, whether because people are scared of their suffering or because they don’t want to offend with anything they say. If you fear his suffering, offer to take him to chemotherapy or radiation therapy; you’ll see that, while it’s painful and the side effects are often brutal, he can get through it, and you’ll also be providing what may be some much-needed company. If you fear being offensive, let him know; say that you aren’t used to discussing cancer (if that’s the case) and that he should let you know anytime if you’re crossing any boundaries or should stop talking. Whether this is his first experience with cancer or a later diagnosis, he’ll probably be used to people not knowing what to say or do and help you as much as you’re helping him.
Lastly, stick around after treatment. Many times, supporters disappear as soon as treatment is over. They assume everything is back to normal. For some survivors, life does return to normal and they carry on. Almost every survivors, however, carries fear afterwards. There is the fear of recurrence or a side effect of the treatment returning. Maybe the fear of not having children or losing their partner or just about anything else. Always keep the lines of communication open and stick around for him.
Bad things happen to good people too often. Thankfully, good people can happen to good people as well. Stick with your friend until the very end, and you’ll show that your friendship really can triumph over anything.