Speaking up saved my life

By Prem Aithal, as told to Whitney Fishburn

My dad is a retired cardiologist, so I always took for granted that if something were seriously wrong with my health, I would know better than to let it linger.

That’s why it never occurred to me that the sharp pain I suddenly felt in my testicle after a night out with my buddies was a crisis that needed serious medical attention. I was only 28—too young for testicular cancer, I thought.

But the pain kept getting worse. I finally mentioned it to my friend Morgan, a Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor.

“Man, do me a favor and just see your doctor. Do it for me,” he said.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force currently does not recommend regular screening for testicular cancer.* Had I not listened to my friend, I might not have survived.

I got an appointment with my primary care physician, who was slightly alarmed. He sent me for an ultrasound the next morning. It turned out I had cancer and had to quickly undergo surgery (orchiectomy) to remove the tumor, which was found to be non-seminoma testicular cancer. I also learned that while rare, testicular cancer is one of the more common types of cancer in young men, with the incidence highest among those ages 20-39.

This photo was taken in between rounds of chemo in April 2006.

My oncologist then recommended a retroperitoneal lymph node dissection (RPLND)—a procedure to see if the cancer had spread to nearby lymph nodes—due to the risk of metastasis to other parts of the body, like the lungs and brain. Without the RPLND, my oncologist said my risk of recurrence would be 40%.

I reluctantly opted for the RPLND and it was the right choice—seven of 30 lymph nodes were cancerous. I went on to have chemotherapy and even though it was successful, my cancer odyssey wasn’t over.

I’ve had five hospitalizations related to intestinal complications from the RPLND and eventually had surgery in 2015 to remove adhesions (scar-like tissue), plus another intervention due to side effects in both hips from the steroids used during chemotherapy. It helped, but I still have a lot of pain and can no longer play tennis, a hobby I loved. Eventually, I will need hip replacement surgery, and I have several abdominal scars that took me a while to accept and not feel self-conscious about.

Even though I have lived cancer-free since 2006, my mental health suffered from all the stress. I felt like once I was given the “all clear,” I just got spit out onto the street. No one prepared me for how difficult it would be to have my body fail so often following treatment. Unfortunately, I dealt with those feelings the wrong way and sometimes drank way too much.

Celebrating 10 years of being cancer-free, I wore this white suit on my all-clear anniversary date for awhile! It is also the suit I got married in.

Eventually, I found a peer support group and turned things around. I quit drinking and faced the pain of the trauma I had been through.  I realized drinking alcohol—which is also linked to increased risk of cancer —was a waste of the second chance I’d been given.

It’s been nearly 20 years since my “all clear” from cancer, but there has been relatively little advancement in detecting and treating testicular cancer. For that reason, I have helped raise almost $50,000 for various cancer organizations. I want to see change! I am especially passionate about prevention and survivorship and working on starting my own nonprofit to ease the fear and pain for others going through similar situations to what I experienced.

I recently resigned from my high-stakes corporate job and started working as a consultant for public schools, which has filled my life with more joy. I know that nothing in life is guaranteed. I also know now that it’s better to use our time on earth to help others—and that when your best buddy tells you to get that pain checked out, do it right away!

*While the USPSTF does not include screening for testicular cancer in their recommendations, the Prevent Cancer Foundation encourages individuals with testicles to ask their health care provider to examine their testicles as part of their routine physical and to talk to them about testicular self-examination.