Jamie Spencer had no early warning signs that there was something wrong. He was a fit, healthy 26-year-old, who worked out at a gym. Like many young men, he thought that cancer affected only much older people. “I had no odd symptoms, no dull aches or feeling of heaviness,” he says.
So it was a shock for him, while having a bath one evening, to feel a lump in his left testicle. “I was not sure what to think,” he says. “I had never read anything about testicular cancer, but I immediately felt anxious.”
Even so, for a few days, he did nothing, hoping vainly that the lump would go away. “Then, I saw my GP and he told me it was a cyst – nothing to worry about.”
Although initially relieved, Jamie’s anxiety soon returned and it began to affect his concentration. He was a quantity surveyor, and fellow workers on the building sites he visited depended on his accurate measurements.
“I left it about a week, then suddenly decided I must see one of the other GPs at the practice. He gave me an urgent referral for an ultrasound test at the Queen’s Medical Centre, Nottingham.” The result of the test, which Jamie had four days later, was unequivocal. The lump, about one centimetre wide, was malignant.
“Suddenly, from being an ordinary person, I was someone with cancer,” he says. “I was only 26, I felt and looked the same, and did not feel ill. It was the word that hit me. At first, I blanked out with fear and worry – would I survive? I was sleepless with anxiety. Everything happened so quickly, I had no time to find out more.”
Jamie, who lives in Nottingham, comes firmly in the middle of the 18 to 35 age range of men most likely to be affected by this disease – although it can also develop in boys as young as 15. Inexplicably, testicular cancer is becoming increasingly common. The number of cases has doubled in the past 20 years to about 1,700 new cases a year.
But thanks to medical progress, testicular cancer is one of the most curable cancers. More than 96 per cent of sufferers whose cancer is caught early are treated successfully – and even when the cancer has spread, it is curable in 80 per cent of cases. Twenty years ago, a cancer that had spread was largely incurable. About 100 men still die from the disease each year.
Ten days after being diagnosed, Jamie underwent surgery to remove the affected testicle. Tests and scans showed no sign that the cancer had spread, and all seemed well.
Delighted that his frightening ordeal was coming to an end, Jamie recuperated for two weeks and then “hobbled” back to work. Within a week, though, another scan showed that Jamie had the fastest growing form of cancer and that it had spread to a lymph node under his ribs.
Following further surgery to remove the secondary cancer, Jamie had four gruelling courses of chemotherapy, over three months. “I shaved my head as a way of trying to take control of my treatment – I did not want to see all my hair on the pillow,” he says. “But, by the end, I had lost all my body hair, including eyebrows and eyelashes.”
He was sick, lost a stone in weight and felt exhausted. During this time, Jamie ate bowls of cornflakes – “the only food that would stay down” – for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and he says he has not been able to face them since.
It was an extremely emotional time. His parents spent time with him in hospital during the courses of chemotherapy. His wife Maxine later told him she used to stay awake at night to check that he was still breathing.
“It was a very frightening period,” says Jamie. “For a while, I was terrified that every dull ache or twinge of back pain was a return of the cancer. But I have now been clear of cancer for eight years.”
His illness completely changed the direction of his life. When he returned to work, he discovered that every other man in the company had become well-informed about testicular cancer. “Unwittingly, I had become a one-man awareness campaign.”
Jamie helped to form a testicular cancer support group with a handful of fellow patients. “Like many other men, I had been ignorant of the signs and implications of testicular cancer,” he says.
“I think many men go to a gym or play a sport and eat healthily, but they are scared to go to their doctor with worries about their testicles or prostate. Some delay going because they fear they will become infertile or impotent.” He stresses that in the vast majority, neither is the case.
Jamie’s experience underlines the importance of the earliest possible detection of cancer, which is the main theme of next month’s Male Cancer Awareness Everyman Campaign, organised by the Institute of Cancer Research. Although men’s interest in their health has grown in recent years, they still have a long way to go to catch up with most women, he says. Only five years ago, a Mori poll found that only one in five men is aware of the symptoms of testicular cancer.
Jamie feels passionately that men must take more notice of the basic signs of cancer, and has spoken on local radio and to local groups on the subject. Earlier this year, he abandoned the building site for a full-time job as Midlands development co-ordinator for Macmillan Cancer Relief.
Men often ask him how early they should seek help. “This is difficult to define. It is a question of being aware of any change – however small. I usually point out that as soon as cancer starts growing, it starts spreading,” he says.
Given his own initial misdiagnosis, Jamie advises: “Whatever the nature of the lump, request an ultrasound test. Most GPs will not see more than one case of testicular cancer in 20 years. It is best not to leave anything to chance.”
Delaying a visit to your GP for a week might well make a difference, he says, and could mean that a fast-growing cancer spreads to the spine or another organ. Although testicular cancer responds to treatment even in the late stages, more traumatic surgery, radiotherapy or combinations of powerful anti-cancer drugs are required.
“The era of male bravado or just plain embarrassment must come to an end,” says Jamie.