I first noticed the lump on my right ball while I was in the shower.
I wasn’t even checking my balls at the time, but I stupidly decided to write it off as normal when really, I should have dragged my ass straight to the GP. In the coming weeks, I started to get weird pains, almost like I had been kicked in the nuts. Not a pain in the area directly, but rather a dull ache that sat in my lower abdomen, like when you cop a good hard hit to jewels. It was October 2011 and I was 23 years old.
When I went to the doctor the next week, he sent me straight for an ultrasound and during the follow-up appointment a few days later, he sent me straight to a urologist. I had to wait a week to get an appointment and spent most of it stressed as all fuck. Did I have cancer? If I did, would it kill me? The unknown was an abyss so big I simply couldn’t fathom it, but I just had to wait.
The appointment finally rolled around and the urologist looked at the ultrasound for a total of 20 seconds before he turned to me and said, “you should have it out”. Jesus, this bloke was not here to fuck spiders. As I learnt in the coming minutes, you can’t perform a biopsy on a testicle, you simply take it out or you don’t. While he couldn’t tell me what I had was definitely cancer, the evidence was compelling enough to warrant surgery, even if it did turn out to be just a nasty cyst.
I wasn’t scared of losing one of my nuts, so the surgery just became another hoop I had to jump through to get some fucking answers. I was also given the option for a prosthetic but to me, that just seemed like an unnecessary pain in the ass. I mean, if anyone can A, immediately tell that you’re one down, and B, gives even a skerrick of a fuck because of it, they’re simply not worth your time. Trust me, if you have to lose a testicle, at least embrace the comfort that comes with a less crowded sack.
Don’t get me wrong, I was still scared shitless of what the outcome might be, but it’s pretty amazing how quickly one can adapt to a situation which was completely alien to them just a few weeks earlier. Having cancer at 23 simply isn’t something that crossed my mind, but I made peace with what was happening pretty quickly for my own sanity.
I had two weeks to wait before the surgery – which was scheduled for the 31st of October, or, as I like to remember it, the weirdest Halloween of my life thus far. On a Saturday in that two-week window, I had met with some mates at the pub, gotten really drunk, and begged them all to check their own balls when they got home.
I took some time off work – partly for the pains I had, but mostly for my own mental health. I was working a soul-crushing insurance job at the time and the thought of having to deal with that and my health was just too much. Luckily, my boss was incredibly understanding and allowed me all the time I needed.
Before the surgery, I was told I would probably wanna freeze some sperm just in case, which I decided was a good idea. Unfortunately for me, all of the rooms at the fertility clinic were being renovated, so I was given a cup to jizz in at home which I would need to get back to the clinic within 40 minutes of doing so. Have you ever had to rush anywhere directly after having a wank? It’s a stressful time, I’ll tell you that.
When the day of my surgery rolled around, it passed by frighteningly quickly. The procedure itself doesn’t take all that long and there’s no need to spend any time as an inpatient, so it’s simply a matter of getting changed into a hospital gown, being knocked out, and waking up disoriented with half the pubes you went in with and one less diseased testicle.
I remember the nurse asking mum if I was “shaved down there” instead of asking the pube-haver, who was sitting right there in the same room. I chimed in with an awkward “uhh, trimmed” before mum had to answer and we both pissed ourselves laughing when the nurse left the room. What mother knows the pube status of her 23-year-old son?
I spent the next two weeks recovering at my parents’ place where I mostly watched Foxtel absolutely whacked out on painkillers. It was all a bit of a blur, but I do remember having an anxious wank as soon as I could just to make sure everything was still in working order. I’m only human, folks.
The surgery itself left me with some permanent nerve damage, which means I no longer have any feeling on the right side of my groin area underneath the scar which sits just under my belt line. During an inguinal orchidectomy, the testicle is actually pushed up towards the waist and removed from the upper groin area so that the spermatic cord is taken along with it. My pain in the ass spermatic cord just happened to be stuck against a nerve, which was damaged in the removal, but look, as far as long-lasting side effects go, it’s a pretty mild one. I don’t think I’ve once in the seven years since surgery thought “fuck, I wish I still had feeling in that space between my waist and dick on the right side of my body.”
The scariest part of this whole journey, and probably my life, was sitting in the waiting room of Shire Urology with mum. I was finally about to find out why my testicle was hastily yanked from my scrotum and all I could think about was the possibility I could be dying. At best, it was a horrible cyst, at worst, it was cancer, and I had been anxiously waiting in that room for about half an hour to find out.
When my name was called, mum and I hurried into the doctor’s office and sat down, hoping for a quick chat about the better of those two scenarios. Within 30 seconds of the appointment, the urologist placed a full-colour image of my testicle, which had been cut in half, in front of us. He tapped on a particularly freakish-looking section of the image and said, “this is a stage 4 tumour”.
I’ve never seen my mother look so defeated.
He explained that in many testicular cancer cases removing the testicle is often enough, as the area is fairly contained from the rest of the body, making it harder to spread. Unfortunately, the tumour I had was growing on a blood vessel, meaning it was already in my bloodstream. While I still managed to catch it early enough, there was evidence that it had spread to the lymph nodes in my lower back.
I left that appointment with two vital pieces of information. Firstly, testicular cancer has an incredibly high survival rate. Even though it started to spread in my case, I was still looking at a 96 per cent cure rate. Not just remission, cure rate. Secondly, there was no way to tell how I came to have the disease. In the doctor’s words, “it’s completely sporadic”. I was hopeful about the eventual outcome, but confused and angry that I couldn’t place any blame. I simply had to accept the situation I was in and move forward.
Up until this point, I had been absolutely shitting my pants about what might be happening to me because as it turns out, the possibility of having cancer is scarier than the actual diagnosis. Once you know the problem, you have a plan, and having a plan provides at least some comfort.
After meeting with the urologist, I was sent to see the man who would become my oncologist, Dr David Thomas, who is one of the kindest, most understanding, and pleasant doctors I’ve ever encountered. He always listened to my concerns and was even happy to answer any queries I had via call or text message after hours. To myself and the oncology staff at Sutherland Hospital, he was just David rather than Dr Thomas.
I was given three options at this point. I could either have another surgery to remove the affected lymph nodes in my back, cop three rounds of chemotherapy, or monitor the situation and act if it got worse. Each option had its own set of pretty fucked up consequences.
The surgery would be major, requiring a bunch of my organs to be moved outside of my fucking body in order to reach the cancerous nodes. Not only that, the nodes in questions sit next to a major nerve that, if damaged, would leave me unable to ejaculate, which, you know, I enjoy doing.
The chemotherapy would go for a total of nine weeks and leave me with a number of possible long-term side effects like nerve damage, hearing loss, kidney damage, and so on. Monitoring would mean regular scans (which I’d have to do anyway) and living with the constant, lingering thought of cancer being inside my body at any given time.
A decision on exactly how I’d like to be fucked up was not one to be made lightly, so we went for a second opinion with a different urologist who strongly advised against the surgery. After weighing up the options, I decided that I’d prefer to deal with the situation then and there via the chemo because even if I did have the surgery, there was no guarantee the cancer wasn’t already fanging around my system, meaning the possibility of future chemo couldn’t be ruled out. I went with the option that gave me the best chance of straight-up wiping that shit out so I could get on with my life.
I was to start treatment the following Monday as an outpatient at Sutherland Hospital. I would go there in the morning to be pumped up with a cocktail of toxic liquids and head home after about 4 hours to be incredibly sick. I was living with my best mate in an apartment at the time, but decided it was best to move home with my folks during treatment so they could take care of me and for mum’s peace of mind. Luckily, a pal was able to move into a spare room we had and cover my portion of the rent while I was undergoing chemo.
The next hurdle was work. I had nowhere near nine weeks of sick leave, and the 7ish weeks of annual I had saved up was already booked in for a big European holiday me and some mates had planned for April 2012. I called my boss and asked if I could just take the time I needed as unpaid leave so I could still go on the holiday and luckily, she was able to make that happen, despite some push back from HR.
With all of that sorted, I bought some new video games, moved my PC over to the spare room at my parents’ place and settled in for the duration of the treatment. I figured if I was going to be stuck at home I could at least play some games and watch some movies, but Christ, I was not at all prepared for how sick I was actually going to be.
Testicular cancer is an aggressive cancer, which calls for aggressive treatment. I was to have three cycles of BEP chemotherapy, which consists of three different drugs: Bleomycin, Etoposide, and Cisplatin. Each cycle lasts 3 weeks, the first of which you receive all three drugs, with the remaining two considered rest weeks where only Bleomycin is given on one day per week. This translates to a week of absolute hell, followed by two weeks of a slightly milder hell, repeated a total of three times.
On the first day of my treatment, I sat in the oncology waiting room until my name was called. I was weighed, then seated in a comfy chair where I was cannulated and set up on a drip of saline which would run through before the drugs were administered. The cannula was changed every three days, meaning I’d head home with the thing still sticking out of my arm and a sleeve over the top of it. Being my first session, I felt totally fine, so I did my best to hold onto that feeling as long as I could.
In terms of feeling like ass, Cisplatin is the main culprit. It’s a platinum-based drug used as part of a number of chemotherapy treatments and works by inhibiting the replication of DNA. While I felt OK directly after my first session, I was vomiting my sorry ass up by dinner time.
This was the beginning of a deep-seated nausea which was constant and unrelenting for the entire 9 weeks of chemo. I was prescribed a single pill a few days later which would stop me from physically vomiting, but it did nothing to stop the nausea, which was almost worse because as you probably know, at least after you vom, you have a brief period of relief.
While you’d be forgiven for thinking the sickness is the worst aspect of chemotherapy, for me, it was the complete and total lack of energy. Towards the middle of the intensive week of each cycle, walking became little more than a shuffle. Just getting up to take a piss would literally leave me out of breath, as would something as simple as trying to eat a meal. No one tells you how debilitating it is when all you can do is sit, lacking even the mental energy required to apply context to what’s on TV beyond just images flickering on a screen. I wouldn’t wish that anguish on my worst fucking enemy, man.
Etoposide is the drug responsible for hair loss, which I anticipated by having a mate run some clippers over my head towards the end of the first cycle. The hair all over your body becomes weak and falls straight out at the slightest pull, and I refused to look sick and weird, so I made peace with being bald pretty early on. When I was well enough to venture outside on the off weeks, I did cop a few weird stares because, admittedly, I probably looked like a bit of a skinhead with a completely shaved dome and an arm full of tattoos.
My girlfriend had booked a European holiday with her friends before any of this had started and was due to leave for 6 weeks just before my second cycle began. She felt horrible and was going to cancel the whole thing to stay with me, but I told her to go. I was in great hands at home with my folks, a positive outcome at the end of my treatment was almost a sure thing, and watching me be too exhausted to move wouldn’t do either of us any good, because at that stage all we really did was lay there and cry.
More side effects began creeping in during the second cycle, which only compounded how awful I was already feeling. I started getting pain and numbness in my fingers and toes, which is something called peripheral neuropathy. I was particularly concerned with this because I play guitar and if the nerve damage was to be permanent, it would likely spell the end of that. It hurt to even tap the tips of my fingers against a hard surface, let alone holding down the strings of a riff stick. I also developed some pretty wild tinnitus which meant at night, all I could hear was a howling-level ringing in my ears.
I brought both concerns to my oncologist who offered to send me for a hearing test, as he could see my passion for music was something that’s important to me. If my hearing were to drop to a concerning level, we’d dial back the chemo a little bit to minimise the potential for permanent hearing loss. Luckily, that didn’t need to happen and after all three cycles, the tinnitus mostly subsided. My hearing isn’t the greatest these days, but it’s impossible to know whether that’s a result of the chemo, or years of going to and playing shows, not to mention blasting music directly into my ears on a daily basis. The pain in my fingers settled down around the same time and I was back to playing in bands again as soon as I could.
During the off weeks, I’d also have to go lung function tests to make sure the Bleomycin wasn’t impacting my breathing. It consisted of me sitting in a weird plastic box and blowing as hard as I could into a tube. While the amount of Bleo I was given was small in comparison to the other drugs, it also gave me weird flu-like symptoms which landed me in the hospital at one point. You see, chemo doesn’t just kill cancer, it kills everything, including your immune system. It’s the medical equivalent of using nuclear weapons to solve a problem, despite the collateral damage. Your body’s ability to fight off infection is decreased, so if your temperature rises above a certain level, you have to drag your ass straight to the emergency room and show them your special red cancer card, which is like a VIP pass for the shittest nightclub in town.
I got taken straight through to a bed, monitored to make sure I didn’t have an infection, and given a lot of painkillers. As it was just a reaction to the Bleo, there was nothing to worry about, but I had to spend a few days in hospital regardless, which sucked because it was Christmas time and I just wanted to be around friends and family. I was given steroids to ensure the reaction wouldn’t happen again.
As you can probably imagine, going through such a profound course of cancer treatment does some strange things to you mentally. I started planning my return to the workforce and at one point told mum I wanted to go back to uni to become a doctor because I wanted to help people. I also told her I wanted to buy a BMW for some reason. “Chemo brain” is a real thing and apart from the mental fogginess, it can make you come up with some odd shit. Once the dust settled, I realised that I had absolutely no desire to go back to uni, nor did I care about buying a fucking BMW.
The third cycle of chemo is the worst because, at that point, everything you’ve already been through is piled on top of the horrible sickness which comes with a fresh round of drugs. I was more exhausted than I had ever been and the nausea worse than I thought it could get. I completely broke down in tears more than a couple of times.
Coming out on the other end of nine weeks of torture was maybe the best feeling I’ve ever experienced. Every day my strength returned, my nausea decreased, and my mood lifted, but the next box I had to tick was a big one. It was time to see if all that pain was worth it. I had a blood test, a CT scan, and received my results a few days later – the affected lymph nodes in my back had shrunk to a normal size, the tumour markers in my blood had diminished, and my body was recovering from the hell it just went through. I was officially in remission.
From there I would have CTs every 3 months for the first year, then every 6 months, then yearly, etc. While jumping through those hoops was a pain in the ass, it was nice to receive regular pats on the back and assurance that I had well and truly kicked cancer’s stupid ass.
I went back to work as a weird-looking bald man with barely any eyebrows, to a team who was happy to see me back. I was also well enough to go on the holiday I had planned three months later, which was just when my hair started properly growing back. It tried to earlier, but only as a weird, horrible fuzz I chose to shave off straight away. It’s one thing being bald, but another to look like a fucking peach. Eventually, better growth started to come through, but it was blonde and weirdly, super soft, like baby hair. After a couple of haircuts, though, it returned to its natural colour and thickness.
In October 2017, my oncologist told me not to come back. I was officially cured of cancer.
People often say things like, “you’re so brave” or “you’re a hero for going through that,” but to be totally honest, I don’t feel like I’m either of those things. The truth is, I was scared shitless for a lot of the time and I did what anyone facing a serious illness does – I adapted. We often underestimate just how strong we can be in dire situations, but when something like cancer grabs you by the balls – literally – you just kinda roll with it.
But I was also incredibly lucky in a lot of ways, not only because I had a cancer with an incredibly high cure rate, but because I had the most amazingly strong, supportive network of friends and family I could ever ask for. Whether it was just being there with me when I was too sick to talk, taking me to chemo for four hours, or just texting me to see how I was, every single gesture, big or small, made a huge difference to me and the shitstorm I was weathering.
I was also in a situation where I could move home and have my rent covered, which helped me out massively in a financial sense, particularly because I was left roughly $2,000 out of pocket for treatment. You’d think Medicare and fairly comprehensive health insurance would cover something like lifesaving chemotherapy drugs, but that’s just not the case. I received the bill mere days after completing my treatment.
Cancer taught me three important lessons. Firstly, surrounding yourself with friends and family is just as important as the medicine you take. I can’t even begin to imagine how much harder the experience would have been without the support network I had. Secondly, life’s too short not to do what you want with it. Part of the reason I’m doing what I am now is because I couldn’t justify staying in a job I hated anymore. If you’re not happy, make a change. And lastly, don’t ignore your health. If something doesn’t feel right, get it checked out. Had I left my cancer to grow even a few more months, there’s a good chance it would have spread even further throughout my body.
Cancer probably wasn’t going to take my life, but it did put me through four months of physical and mental agony beyond anything I’d ever experienced. While I’m relieved that chapter of my life is over, I’m also thankful for what it taught me about myself and what I’m capable of.
There’s no better feeling than looking cancer in the eyes, calling it a dog, and stomping its head into the pavement. Fuck that asshole.
If you would like further information about testicular cancer, visit the Cancer Council’s information page here.