T homas Cantley was living in New York City. It was 2009. One day he discovered that his left testicle was slightly larger than the right. He felt no pain, so he didn’t visit a physician. Later he began to feel what he calls an “obscene pain” in his lower abdominal area, so he went to the hospital for an examination.
He was prescribed medicine for kidney stones. After a few days on the medication his left testicle swelled to the size of a small orange and turned a deep shade of purple. Cantley was diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer. He was only 26. He was lucky. He received treatment and is now cancer free.
“Know your balls,” says Cantley, filmmaker and founder of the Ballsy Cancer Society. “Really know them and get a full-body physical at least once a year.”
Born in Nova Scotia and raised in California, Cantley is an only child. “I am a little bit of an eccentric,” he says. “Everyone called me ballsy before I came up with the name.”
He wants to help educate young men by doing edgy, ballsy things. “I want to shock them,” he says. “I tell them, ‘You do not want to end up like me.’ Most men, until something is physically paining them, will not seek help.”
Most diagnoses for testicular cancer come during the ages 16 to 26. This is why Cantley believes men should start checking their testicles at age 13. In 2007 there were 832 new cases of testicular cancer in Canada, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.
Doctors in New York removed his left testicle in 2009. After further examination, they discovered the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes and he needed Retroperitoneal Lymph Node Dissection Surgery (RPLND). Cantley, still in a wheelchair, left for Canada to have his surgery in Halifax, NS.
Cantley’s RPLND at the Victoria General Hospital in Halifax was performed by Dr. Ricardo Rendon, an urologist at Capital Health and an associate professor in the Department of Urology at the Dalhousie Medical School. The doctor removed lymph nodes after making an incision from his breastbone down to the lower abdomen.
The surgery was unusual. Cantley filmed the entire procedure. “It was the only way I could deal with what I was going through without talking about it,” he says. “I used film as a crutch and aid. It kept me busy and my mind off what I was going through.”
After the surgery, Cantley started active surveillance treatment. This is an option that some men have after surgery. It consists of frequent doctor visits to monitor cancer cells for as long as needed.
Other treatments for testicular cancer include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, clinical treatment trials and complementary therapies.
Men need to self-test their testicles once a month. They should be the consistency of a hard boiled egg, says Cantley. “When mine was in a progressive stage of cancer, it was very tender and hard as a rock,” he says, “You don’t want to wait and be in a position to say it’s too late.”
Common symptoms include swelling of the testicles; painless lumps or nodules inside the testicles, about the size of a pea or larger; slight enlargement; and pain in the lower back or groin area.
If caught early, in stage zero, one or two, the survival rate for testicular cancer is 96%. If the cancer has progressed to stage four, it can be terminal. This is why it is important for men to be aware of their bodies. If irregularities go overlooked, the results may be irreversible.
Leah Jamnicky, clinical educator at the Princess Margaret Hospital Cancer Program, University Health Network in Toronto, says that women get more regular checkups than men. “Car maintenance is followed more strictly,” she says. Indeed, the U.S. Centre for Disease Control statistics show that only 66% of men have an annual medical check up, while 85% get their cars checked every year.
There is a stigma for men regarding health care, says Cantley. “Men are supposed to be tough and women are the emotional ones.”
Dr. Andrew Matthew, a Psychologist at the Princess Margaret Hospital Cancer Program says that when a person is stressed, they may cope in two different ways: problem-focused or emotion-focused. Men are more prone to problem-focused coping. It involves gathering information about the cancer to develop a better understanding of the disease, treatments, and side-effects as well as finding the best doctor and the best hospital and developing a plan regarding absence from work. Women are more likely to use emotion-focused coping, which focuses on learning about the emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis and various treatments and seeking social support.
“Men are more likely to approach the disease in isolation, figuring it out for themselves, while women are more likely to approach the disease as part of a community, finding other women for emotional guidance and support,” says Dr. Mathew.
Men see emotion as a weakness, says Cantley. “Society has built men to be tough and show no emotion. My goal is to break that barrier and allow them to be free and open and express their concerns. I do a lot of my presentations in my underwear. I need to be out there and open for the guys.”
He exposes himself to show that being comfortable with your body shows strength, not weakness.
His presentations include viewing surgery footage, telling exhaustive descriptions of his battle with testicular cancer and comedy skits. Cantley gets through to his audience by adding his personal story. “I am a guy you can relate to and feel compassion for,” he says. “There is a face to me — I’m not just a company.” Typically, only about 1% of an audience absorbs the information presented. “If I can increase that to 5% or 10%, I am doing my job.”
A young man who saw one of Cantley’s Ballsy presentations approached him to say he was recently diagnosed with testicular cancer. He wished that he had paid more attention to the presentation.
Testicles have always been poked fun of in the media, insists Cantley. “I used to laugh too,” he says. “Balls never get attention because we only talk about them in jokes. We think testicles are not attractive, but breasts are beautiful. Who knows, maybe balls will become beautiful someday.”
Learn more at ballsyjourney.com