Several years ago my 15-year-old son required a “sports physical” to participate in a high school athletics program. Because I’d forgotten to schedule one with his pediatrician I ended up at my physician neighbor’s door one evening begging him to do a quick physical, so I could turn in the paperwork the following morning.
He is also good friends of ours (and like us, the parent of all boys), he professionally and quickly went through the exam, making small talk as he chatted about stuff teen boys deal with.
Then his demeanor turned serious for a moment, and he said, “We need to talk about the boys down there.”
The Importance of Self-Exams to Detect Testicular Cancer
He went on to tell my son that it’s vitally important (and could ultimately save his life) to become very comfortable with his testicles, and what is a normal feeling/how they should feel, and what is not, because it’s the best way for males to detect testicular cancer (TC) early.
He joked, “Listen, I know you’re down there a lot anyway, so just have a feel and make sure you let your parents know if anything feels off.” That comment made both my son and me blush, but it also lightened the mood a little, and was the perfect thing to say to a 15-year-old boy.
Funny thing was (besides hearing ball jokes in the company of a medical doctor) the fact that my female pediatrician had never once mentioned to me or my teen sons during a well child visit that they should learn to do self-exams on their testicles, or even why it was necessary. It actually never came up at all, as if testicular cancer wasn’t a condition that adolescent boys could get, which I now know is completely false. I also know that I’m not the only one whose pediatrician has not mentioned it.
Theresa Ratliff’s son, Jackson, was diagnosed with TC at the age of 18, and she also recalls never once being told by a pediatrician to encourage her son to do self-exams. She said,
Never did any doctor at any time during his teen years tell him to do a self-exam and, until his diagnosis, I was pretty much oblivious to the whole concept of a self exam, so I did not advise this with either of my sons prior to Jackson’s diagnosis.
I’m forever grateful for the kindness and humor my neighbor gave us that evening, and it has helped me have the same conversation with my other sons with ease and confidence. We’ve been able to talk seriously about self-exams on his “jewels,” and to joke about the intimate hilarity of it.
When Parents Should Begin To Talk to Their Sons About Testicular Cancer
So when is the right age to start having this conversation with your son, and what kind of guidance and instruction should you (and your health care provider) be giving? A survey done by The Cleveland Clinic found that parents who are having this conversation with their sons did so around age 11-12, and physicians agree that by age 15, all boys should be familiar with how to perform a self-exam, and the should continue self-exams until age 45.
Risk factors include familial history, but are particularly high (4-8 times higher) for boys born with an undescended testicle(s), and that risk remains high whether the testicle drops by itself or is surgically descended during the first year of life.
As far as self-exams go, the only way to tell when something feels abnormal is to know what normal feels like, which is why starting the conversation early is key. Then from there, these recommendations and directions from the Testicular Cancer Awareness Foundation should help.
Testicular Cancer Awareness Foundation
1. Exams should be performed monthly, and the ideal time to do them is in the shower or right after, because warm water helps to relax the scrotal skin, making it easier to feel around down there. (Chances are they’re taking 30 minute shower anyway, so let them know that’s the perfect time.)
2. TC usually only affects only one testicle, so comparison with the other is helpful when something doesn’t feel like the other.
3. Boys should focus on noticing changes from the previous month, and take note of any lumps, bumps, and/or something that wasn’t there before, as well as changes in size, shape or texture. They need to remember that it’s normal for one to be larger than the other, and lumps-even if they are painless to the touch, still need to be evaluated by a physician.
Lumps don’t just suddenly go away, so encourage your boys to take control of their health and report anything they feel is abnormal. ANYTHING! Remind them that there is nothing embarrassing about taking care of healthy bodies.
When detected early, TC boasts some of the highest survival rates among cancers, with 5 year survival rates for localized TC at 99%. Early detection is key, so keep those…ahem, private parts jokes going (as long as they’re accompanied by serious talk about self-exams!) It could save their life!
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