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When cancer hits below the belt

Wednesday 16th September 2015

Cancer survivor Benjamin Hinch has a simple piece of advice for young New Zealand men - if you find a lump in your testicles, get it checked.

Benjamin Hinch, nicknamed Only One Kenobi, wants to start the discussion about this ‘embarrassing’ cancer.

Photo: Elizabeth Beattie

Holding a pregnancy test in nervous hands, Benjamin Hinch faced a life-changing moment most commonly experienced by young women.

Mentally willing the double blue lines not to appear, up to that moment, Benjamin didn’t know much about testicular cancer.

“The most I’d seen about it was on that South Park episode where they all try to get testicular cancer … my knowledge was pretty much zero,” says the 27-year-old.

Pregnancy tests are just one of the preliminary screening methods some doctors use when looking for certain types of testicular cancer tumour markers, but are not considered a diagnosis tool themselves.

Testicular cancer is the most common cancer affecting young men aged 15-39. Roughly 150 young men in New Zealand are diagnosed with testicular cancer every year.

In Benjamin’s case, his pregnancy test showed up negative, but he still had symptoms which pointed to something being seriously wrong.

First noticing a painful lump after sex, he waited a couple of weeks hoping it would clear up naturally, and that is was “just one of those weird body things”.

A few weeks later after not seeing any improvement, Benjamin went to his GP.

“First the [medical staff said] ‘we’re going to have a little feel,’ then they said ‘that doesn’t feel right,’ then they did blood tests.”

“They sent away for every venereal disease, to check for STIs and that came back all clear.”

The next step was another trip to the doctors for an ultrasound.

The most I’d seen about it was on that South Park episode where they all try to get testicular cancer … my knowledge was pretty much zero.

“They show you what one testicle looks like and it’s this clear, white kinda thing, and the other [testicle] is mottled and dark. I’m not a doctor, but when I saw it, it looked like it belonged on a cigarette packet warning.”

After a week of anxious waiting, Benjamin received a phone call from his GP asking him to come down to the clinic.

“I told them to tell me over the phone … they were very reluctant to, which was kinda ironic because the fact they didn't want to tell me over the phone it made it obvious it [was] bad news.”

Benjamin remembers being uncharacteristically calm when he heard his diagnosis, but says his fears were alleviated somewhat when he learnt about the treatability of testicular cancer, and what the next steps.

“They laid down all of the positive news quite early on,” he says.

Testicular Cancer NZ medical consultant and urological surgeon James Duthie says that testicular cancer is something young men need to be aware of.

“For a male to find a lump in their testicle, it’s really a medical emergency, it’s something that needs to be sorted out in days not weeks because at their most aggressive, some testicular cancers have a doubling time of four weeks. The smaller they are when we treat them, the better our chance is of curing them, particularly with simple methods.”

“It’s common, it’s easy to check for, you’re going to be washing them in the shower anyway. It’s eminently treatable, but the sooner we catch it, the easier the treatments going to be,” he says.

Dr Duthie says that finding a lump may result in some patients needing ongoing observation, while others will require chemotherapy and surgery.

In Benjamin’s case, he required chemotherapy and surgery, but for him, the anxiety building up was worse than the treatment itself.

“The two weeks before I started chemo were the worst, worrying what [it] was going to be like.”

“I was lucky because chemo didn’t fuck me up that badly. Once I had started and had gone through the first five days and [felt] ok, then chemo wasn’t so scary any more,” he says.

Benjamin also had one testicle surgically removed. He says his apprehensions were quelled by his doctors reassurance that his sex drive and fertility would not be affected.

Dr Duthie says when a patient goes in for surgery, in most cases it’s a straightforward procedure.

“Removing the testicle is easy, it’s a day case procedure, you’re in and out on the same day, people recover really well from that.” he says.

In Benjamin’s case, his treatment proved so effective, doctors told him he wouldn’t need to return for another round of chemotherapy.

“The amount of excitement coming out of it, it was like, when you finish university for the year, it’s great, but for two or three weeks afterwards, you’re like, ‘what do I do with myself now?’”

Don’t be stupid about going to doctors, don’t be stupid about your health, this is cancer, this is a really important thing.

“Especially having planned of being back in chemo for another two months they were like, here’s your life back.”

The experience has left him surprised about how little testicular cancer is talked about, and has made him eager to share his experience.

“Men are so hung up about talking about their balls, which is kinda weird considering guys talk about their dicks all the f***ing time.”

“I found myself surprised at how embarrassment is such a big thing … it was like [weighing up], embarrassment verses possibly having a terminal illness,” he says.

“Don’t be stupid about going to doctors, don’t be stupid about your health, this is cancer, this is a really important thing.”

“For me to tell people who are embarrassed ‘don’t be embarrassed’ isn’t going to help, but talking about it does make it easier.”

Benjamin, who used to shy away from talking about personal struggles, now feels that honesty is the best approach, especially if it might help others seek help.

“Now I tell strangers I have one ball … And since it’s guys that I’m talking to, I’ve had three girls tell me that that’s the best pickup line they’ve ever heard.”

“I wouldn’t have thought that, because you think of it as being something quite emasculating, having one less ball. You think that telling people that is going to make you less manly, or less attractive to people, but seems to have a strangely opposite effect,” he says.

“I wish I could think of a more beautifully eloquent way of saying it, but f***ing talk about it.”

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