People are often surprised that I am a cancer survivor. For many years, I kept my cancer story to myself. I was diagnosed when I was 20 years old with Stage 1 Seminoma, which is a germ cell tumor of the testis. I am so fortunate that it is one of the most treatable and curable cancers. When diagnosed, I was explicit to my immediate family that I wanted my illness to be kept confidential to all but our family’s very closest of friends. As a young man growing up in a small West Texas town, I was embarrassed to have testicular cancer; I did not want anybody to pity me; I was afraid that I might suffer a permanent stigma. Looking back now, it was incredibly immature and short-sighted of me because those sentiments kept me from being able to grieve my cancer and accept the support of others who care about me. Thus, my cancer ordeal was one that I largely experienced alone, with only my father and mother.
In the spring of my sophomore year of college, I was at the campus bookstore standing in line to pay for my items when I noticed a men’s magazine that was haphazardly placed on top of some discarded merchandise. On the bottom left-hand corner was the following blurb: “Testicular cancer; the importance of performing a testicular self examination.” I literally blushed upon reading it and thought to myself, what an awkward and uncomfortable topic! Even still, I thought that it probably would be a good idea to read the article considering that I had recently been experiencing some discomfort “down there”. At 20 years old, I couldn’t bring myself to say the word “testicle” in my thoughts, let alone even talk about it out loud. So, I casually grabbed the magazine, paid the cashier, and quickly shoved it in my backpack.
Once in my apartment, I vividly remember laying out the magazine on top of the sink in the bathroom and performing the step by step instructions, “gently roll the testicle between your thumb and index finger to feel for any unusual firm lumps.” It was awkward and embarrassing to perform the self-exam. But, immediately, I felt a pea-sized lump on one testicle that wasn’t on the other. I can still remember looking up, directly into the mirror, and seeing the look of worry and disbelief on my face. I quickly completed my self-exam and decided to take a weekend trip to visit my parents. My father was on a business trip, so it was just my mother and me. After church on Sunday, she wanted to treat me to lunch. In the car, I bashfully told her that I found a lump “down there” and that I wanted to see our family physician. I still couldn’t say the word “testicle” or even a cliché for the word, even to my mother. Mom patiently asked me some general questions about it, but I never disclosed the exact area of this lump. I kept its location closely guarded.
I will never forget the day: a snowy March 1, 1989. It was the day of my “exploratory” surgery to investigate the lump. My out-patient surgery was rather quick and the nurses made me walk to the bathroom relatively soon after my inguinal orchiectomy (removal of a testicle in the abdomen area versus an incision in the scrotum). I was not prepared to discover that I had my right testicle removed. I didn’t recall the doctor explaining the intricacies of this “routine procedure.” I was in total shock and in great discomfort. I remember that my parents were standing next to my bed with strong and encouraging smiles on their faces. Looking into their comforting eyes at that moment, I understood that I had testicular cancer. A few days later, in the office of the urologist, he confirmed that the biopsy was indeed testicular cancer. My father asked to speak privately with the doctor. My mother and I quietly walked back to the waiting room while my father remained behind. As we walked, I was certain that all eyes were upon me. I felt like everyone must know my situation, especially the young man who was probably just a few years older than me.
After my diagnosis in Midland, a dear family friend insisted we seek medical treatment at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Within a few days, I was admitted at M. D. Anderson and saw a notable fertility specialist to schedule sperm banking before beginning treatment. Sperm banking is a simple, accessible and affordable way for male cancer patients of all ages to keep their future reproductive options open, yet oncologists often do not always offer counseling and education about fertility issues prior to cancer treatment. I had a very small window of time to go through the sperm banking process when the fertility doctor gave me a grim diagnosis: my sperm count was very low and he said I was technically sterile. Despite the bad news, we elected to proceed with sperm banking anyway.
I spent the summer at M. D. Anderson and we were able to develop some wonderful relationships with the physicians, nursing staff and radiologists that took such great care of me. Like my parents’ unwavering optimism, the staff at M. D. Anderson gave me the great comfort and warmth that I so desperately needed. I was on first-name basis with the staff that drew blood from me each week. We had a few additional scares, such as images showing questionable spots that warranted re-testing and I also had a bad reaction to a drug called Compazine. This medication was meant to help me with nausea, but it landed us in the emergency room instead.
Looking back, I wish that I had been more open to talking about testicular cancer with the other young men that I saw in the waiting rooms, many of whom were battling far worse stages of testicular cancer. Instead, we would just sit quietly as our folks talked about testicular cancer with each other. At the time, forums and support groups were not readily available to discuss the disease. But even if they had been, I am sure I would have retreated in my own world anyway.
However, when treatment was complete and I left my life as a patient and returned to my life as a college student, I mustered the courage to speak to my fraternity brothers and friends about testicular cancer, often enduring the expected trite jokes, about the importance of routine testicular self examinations. With passion, I discussed the options available to young men and their families about sperm banking. I was (and still am) relentless about breaking through the initial awkwardness of discussing testicular cancer. My hope is that through my story, I can assist a young man or his family about forging through life with a testicular cancer diagnosis. I am so fortunate to have seen the article in the college bookstore on that fateful day back in 1989. Since then, there have been a few high profile people like Lance Armstrong who have been vocal about their diagnoses. Their sharing has paved the way for people, including myself, to not be ashamed or embarrassed to discuss testicular cancer.
This may be hard to understand, but if asked if I could change anything in my life, I probably would not omit or alter my cancer experience. Testicular cancer had a profound effect on me and helped make me who I am today: inquisitive, passionate, driven, personable and most importantly, loved. I am so grateful for my mother and father being by my side and giving me courage, faith, unconditional support and love.
My name is Trey Velasco, and I am a 21-year survivor of testicular cancer.
Category: Faces of Cancer