Patient education: Testicular cancer (Beyond the Basics)
- William K Oh, MD
William K Oh, MD
- Section Editor — Testicular Cancer
- Professor of Medicine
- Mount Sinai School of Medicine
- Chief, Division of Hematology Oncology
- Tisch Cancer Institute
TESTICULAR CANCER OVERVIEW
Testicular cancer occurs when cancer cells develop in one or both of the testicles. Testicles are the male reproductive glands located within the scrotum (figure 1). The scrotum is a sack of loose skin that contains the testicles and hangs directly below the penis.
Testicular cancer is the most common cancer arising in young men. Fortunately, it has become one of the most curable of all cancers. More than 95 percent of all men diagnosed with testicular cancer survive their disease.
More detailed information about testicular cancer, written for health care providers, is available by subscription. (See 'Professional level information' below.)
TYPES OF TESTICULAR CANCER
Approximately 95 percent of testicular cancers develop from a type of cell in the testicle called a germ cell. Thus, they are called testicular germ cell tumors.
Seminoma versus nonseminomatous germ cell tumor (NSGCT) — There are two major types of testicular germ cell tumors: seminomas and nonseminomatous germ cell tumors (NSGCTs). Approximately one-third of all testicular germ cell tumors are seminomas; the remainder are NSGCTs. Both seminoma and NSGCT typically affect men between the ages of 15 and 35 years old, although seminomas occur in a slightly older group of men (table 1).
TESTICULAR CANCER SYMPTOMS
For most men, the first symptom of testicular cancer is a painless lump or swelling in the scrotum. Some men also feel a dull ache or heavy sensation in the low belly, or around the anus or scrotum. Pain is the first symptom in approximately 10 percent of men.
TESTICULAR CANCER DIAGNOSIS
Men who detect a lump in their testicle should see a health care provider as soon as possible.
If testicular cancer is suspected, several tests may be ordered. However, the only way to be certain of the diagnosis is to remove the testicle.
●Testicular ultrasound – This is an imaging test that uses sound waves to measure the size and characteristics of the testicle and mass (lump), and can determine whether the mass is inside or outside of the testicle and whether it contains fluid or is a solid mass. Testicular cancers are solid and begin inside the testicle. Often, the ultrasound will strongly suggest the diagnosis of testicular cancer.
●Orchiectomy – The only way to confirm the diagnosis of testicular cancer is by surgically removing the testicle. This procedure is called a radical inguinal orchiectomy. (See 'Radical inguinal orchiectomy' below.)
TESTICULAR CANCER STAGING AND CLASSIFICATION
Staging is used to determine if there is spread (metastasis) of the cancer beyond the testicle.
●Stage I testicular cancer is defined as cancer that is limited to the testicle only.
●Stage II testicular cancer has spread (metastasized) to the retroperitoneal lymph nodes (located in the abdomen).
●Stage III testicular cancer has spread to other organs.
Blood tests and imaging (eg, computed tomography [CT] scan) are used in the process of staging.
Blood tests — Substances produced by a testicular cancer (called tumor markers) can be measured in the blood. The three most important markers are called:
●Alpha fetoprotein (AFP)
●Beta human chorionic gonadotropin (beta-hCG)
●Lactate dehydrogenase (LDH)
High levels of these tumor markers are suggestive of testicular cancer and can help determine the specific type of testicular cancer that is present. These markers are also used during and after treatment to monitor the person's response.
CT scans — Most men with a suspected testicular cancer will undergo a CT scan (sometimes called a CAT scan) of the abdomen and pelvis. A chest X-ray or CT scan of the chest is also commonly done.
These tests are done to determine if the suspected cancer has spread beyond the testicle (metastasized). The most common site of metastasis in testicular cancer is the lymph nodes in the abdomen; metastasis to the lung, liver, bones, and brain is also possible.
Prognostic classification — Men with stage II or III testicular cancer (both seminomas and nonseminomatous germ cell tumors [NSGCTs]) can be classified as having a good, intermediate, or poor prognosis (chance of survival and recovery) based upon the stage of disease and particular type of testicular tumor. Men with stage I testicular cancer have an excellent prognosis and are not included in this classification system.
Following radical inguinal orchiectomy (removal of the testicle), testicular cancer is treated based on the type of tumor (seminoma or NSGCT), the stage of the disease, and the prognosis.
All men with seminoma are classified as having a good or intermediate prognosis. Men with NSGCT may have a good, intermediate, or poor prognosis, depending upon the stage of their disease.
●Good prognosis – Men with seminoma have a good prognosis if the tumor has not metastasized to organs other than the lungs and if they have a normal AFP level in the blood.
Patients with NSGCTs have a good prognosis if the tumor started in the testicle or in the area outside or behind the abdominal wall (retroperitoneal). For a tumor to be classified as good prognosis, it will not have metastasized to organs other than the lungs, and the tumor markers in the blood are only slightly elevated.
●Intermediate prognosis – Patients with seminoma have an intermediate prognosis if the tumor has metastasized to organs other than the lungs, and their AFP test is normal.
Patients with NSGCTs have an intermediate prognosis if the tumor started in one testicle or in the area outside or behind the abdominal wall (retroperitoneal), if the tumor has not spread to organs other than the lungs, and if tumor markers in the blood are elevated but not to an extreme level.
●Poor prognosis – Men with NSGCTs are classified as having a poor prognosis if the tumor develops in the center of the chest between the lungs (called the mediastinum), if it has spread to organs other than the lungs, or if any of the tumor markers are markedly elevated.
Even for patients with a poor prognosis, approximately one-half are cured with aggressive treatment.
TESTICULAR CANCER TREATMENT
Treatment of both seminomas and nonseminomatous germ cell tumors (NSGCTs) generally includes surgery to remove the affected testicle; this surgery is called radical inguinal orchiectomy. (See 'Radical inguinal orchiectomy' below.)
The need for further treatment depends on the type of cancer, the stage of the cancer, and the prognosis. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy (RT) are often used in combination with surgery and can improve the chances of curing the cancer.
Radical inguinal orchiectomy — Radical inguinal orchiectomy is required for diagnosis and is the first step in treatment. During the surgery, the entire testicle is usually removed to avoid the risk of spreading the tumor within the scrotum. Tissue from the testicle is later examined using a microscope.
If you have one of your testicles removed, you can have an artificial (prosthetic) testicle implanted to preserve a normal appearance.
What is chemotherapy? — Chemotherapy refers to the use of medicines to stop or slow the growth of cancer cells. Chemotherapy targets growing cells, interfering with their ability to divide or multiply. Because most of an adult's normal cells are not actively growing, they are not as affected by chemotherapy as the cancer cells. However, the cells in the bone marrow (where the blood cells are produced), the hair follicles, and the lining of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract are all growing. Effects of chemotherapy on these and other normal tissues cause side effects during treatment, including hair loss, nausea, anemia (lowered red blood cell count), an increased risk of infection (lowered white blood cell count), and bleeding (lowered platelet count). (See 'Chemotherapy side effects' below.)
Most drugs are given intravenously (IV) rather than by mouth. They are not usually taken daily, but periodically, in cycles. A cycle of chemotherapy refers to the time it takes to give the drugs and the time required for the body to recover. For example, a typical chemotherapy regimen could include a one-hour IV infusion of two chemotherapy medicines given once every three weeks. This three-week period is one cycle of therapy. If this regimen were repeated for a total of three months, four cycles of chemotherapy would be given.
Chemotherapy for testicular cancer — Chemotherapy is sometimes given to men with early stage testicular cancer. Men with more advanced stages of cancer and those who have a disease relapse after RT usually undergo multiple cycles of combination chemotherapy.
Adjuvant chemotherapy — The term "adjuvant chemotherapy" refers to additional anticancer treatment that is given after surgery to get rid of any remaining tumor cells in the body (often termed micrometastases). Adjuvant chemotherapy decreases the chance that the cancer will return (or recur) and also improves the chances of surviving cancer. As a result, adjuvant chemotherapy has become an important component of treatment.
Lymph node removal — The most common sites of spread for testicular cancer are the lymph nodes in the back of the abdomen, called the retroperitoneal lymph nodes. Surgical removal (called retroperitoneal lymph node dissection [RPLND]) of these nodes is sometimes recommended.
There are alternatives to RPLND, including periodic physical examination and computed tomography (CT) scans (called active surveillance or watchful waiting), a short course of chemotherapy, or in the case of seminomas, low-dose RT.
Men with stage II or III testicular cancer may not undergo RPLND at all or may only have it if there is still cancer present after chemotherapy.
RPLND requires specialized knowledge and training; men who require this procedure should seek care in a facility where the surgeon is experienced with RPLND. Risks of the procedure depend upon the amount of surgery needed to remove the lymph nodes and whether you have had chemotherapy.
Radiation therapy — RT refers to the exposure of a tumor to high-energy X-rays in order to slow or stop its growth. Exposure to X-rays damages cells. Unlike normal cells, cancer cells cannot repair the damage caused by exposure to X-rays, particularly when the radiation is given over several days. This prevents the cancer cells from growing further and causes them to eventually die.
RT for testicular cancer is given as external beam RT, meaning that the radiation beam is generated by a machine while you lie on a table underneath or in front of the machine. The high-energy beams are directed at the lymph nodes in the pelvic area, not the scrotum (figure 2).
Exposure to the beam typically takes only a few seconds (similar to having an X-ray). In general, treatment is repeated five days per week for approximately five to six weeks.
RT is often recommended after orchiectomy for men with seminoma to decrease the risk of relapse. RT may also be used after orchiectomy for men with stage II seminoma that is defined as "non-bulky" (meaning the tumor is smaller than 5 cm in size). However, there are potential risks of RT, including impaired fertility, second malignancy, or late cardiac disease (see 'Radiation therapy side effects' below). For these reasons, RT is usually reserved for older men, men who could not tolerate chemotherapy, and men who are not good candidates for surveillance.
Surveillance — In some cases, men with small stage I testicular cancers do not require more treatment after orchiectomy. However, these men do need to follow up regularly with a health care provider to monitor for signs of relapse. This approach is called surveillance.
Surveillance is only appropriate for men who are willing to have follow-up visits over a period of years. Men who are not able or willing to undergo this active surveillance may require additional treatment with either RT or chemotherapy. (See 'Seminoma' below.)
During surveillance, you will be seen every few months for a physical examination, blood tests, and imaging studies (eg, CT scan of the abdomen and pelvis, chest X-ray). This schedule is recommended for the first three to four years, and then visits may become less frequent (eg, twice per year for several years, and then once per year until at least 10 years after diagnosis).
Testicular cancer treatment recommendations
Seminoma — In general, seminomas grow slowly and do not spread rapidly to other areas of the body. Surgery (radical inguinal orchiectomy) is recommended for all men with early stage seminoma. Following surgery, three treatment options are possible, all of which have an excellent cure rate (98 percent). Treatment options include surveillance (watchful waiting), RT, and chemotherapy.
RPLND is used in some situations after chemotherapy but is not usually performed initially (see 'Lymph node removal' above). A single dose of RT or a chemotherapy called carboplatin is sometimes used to treat patients with stage I seminoma who are not candidates for active surveillance.
Not all treatments are suitable for all patients; your doctors will work with you to determine the most appropriate option based upon your situation.
Nonseminomatous germ cell tumors — Surgery (radical inguinal orchiectomy) is recommended for all men with NSGCT. NSGCTs are not as sensitive to RT as seminomas. NSGCTs are also more likely to spread through the bloodstream to other areas of the body, such as the liver, lungs, and brain.
Treatment with one or two cycles of adjuvant chemotherapy, typically with a drug called cisplatin plus additional chemotherapy agents, is usually recommended. In patients with more advanced disease, chemotherapy with multiple agents is considered the standard of care, with up to 3 to 4 cycles of treatment usually given. The regimen and number of cycles may vary depending on the extent of disease and patient characteristics. Men who have a mass remaining after chemotherapy may require surgery to remove it. Patients who require this type of surgical treatment are best treated at a cancer center that treats a large number of men with testicular cancer.
TESTICULAR CANCER TREATMENT SIDE EFFECTS AND COMPLICATIONS
Side effects and complications related to treatment depend upon the type of treatment used and the severity of the disease.
Fertility issues — Testicular cancer frequently occurs in younger men who have not begun or completed having children. Treatment with surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy can reduce or eliminate sperm production, causing infertility. For reasons that are not well understood, up to 50 percent of men with testicular cancer have a low number of sperm even before treatment.
For these reasons, men preparing to have treatment for testicular cancer should consider storing their sperm for future use. The storage process is called semen cryopreservation and involves storing semen at very low temperatures. Cryopreservation requires that a man give several samples of semen. Ideally, a semen sample should be collected in a clinician's office after masturbation; if this is not possible, the man may be allowed to collect a sample at home in a sterile laboratory container or chemical-free condom. (See "Patient education: Evaluation of the infertile couple (Beyond the Basics)".)
If possible, collection should be started before surgical removal of the testicle and before chemotherapy or radiation therapy; this allows the most and healthiest sperm to be stored.
Even men with very low sperm counts (before cancer treatment) should be encouraged to store their sperm. Intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) is a type of infertility treatment that requires a very small number of sperm.
Men who are unable to store sperm before treatment may still be able to father a child after treatment, depending upon the type and amount of treatment used. (See "Patient education: Treatment of male infertility (Beyond the Basics)".)
Chemotherapy side effects — There are a number of side effects and complications that can develop as a result of chemotherapy. These can be divided into acute side effects (that occur during and shortly after treatment) and long-term risks.
Short-term side effects — Men who undergo chemotherapy can have side effects such as fatigue, hair loss, and nausea or vomiting. Nausea can be prevented or treated with oral or intravenous medications, and hair regrows after treatment is completed. Low blood cell counts can occur in the first few weeks of chemotherapy, which can increase the risk of infection. This generally does not require that the dose or schedule of treatment be changed.
Long-term complications — Chemotherapy can cause serious problems in a number of organ systems within the body, especially when given in combination and if multiple cycles of chemotherapy are required. The type and severity of these problems depend upon the type and dose of chemotherapy. These problems may be long-term and may be a problem for people who have been cured of their testicular cancer. A few of the most common include:
●Damage to nerves, causing pain in the arms and feet or hearing loss.
●Damage to blood vessels in the heart, potentially increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. This typically occurs many years after treatment is completed.
Another serious long-term risk of testicular cancer treatment is the development of a second cancer. This is not a metastasis of the testicular cancer but is a new cancer that develops in the blood or blood forming organs (leukemia), lung, colon, pancreas, bladder, stomach, or other organ system.
Retroperitoneal lymph node dissection — The most common side effect of retroperitoneal lymph node dissection (RPLND) is decreased or absent semen with ejaculation. Advances in surgical techniques with nerve-sparing RPLND have reduced the incidence of this problem. For those men who do have decreased or absent ejaculatory volume, infertility treatments are available.
Radiation therapy side effects — During radiation therapy, fatigue is common but usually not debilitating. Gastrointestinal effects, including nausea, vomiting, increased stool frequency, and rapid gastric emptying, have been described but are not typical. Anti-nausea medications may be used for control of nausea and vomiting. Suppression of the bone marrow can occur (potentially causing anemia) but is usually mild. Mild tanning of the treated skin occurs in the weeks after radiation.
MONITORING AFTER TESTICULAR CANCER TREATMENT
Relapses of testicular germ cell tumors usually occur within two years of the end of treatment, although they can occur later. As a result, all patients who have been successfully treated for testicular cancer should be monitored for cancer recurrence with blood tests, X-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans, and other imaging tests. Monitoring is generally more frequent in the first few years after treatment is completed.
Blood tests, such as the beta human chorionic gonadotropin (beta-hCG) and the alpha fetoprotein (AFP), are used to monitor for early signs of a relapse. In 30 to 50 percent of patients who relapse, increases in blood tumor markers are the first sign of cancer relapse. A man who relapses may have no changes in his tumor markers, and for this reason, the combination of blood testing, CT, and X-ray is recommended.
Stage I follow-up — The optimal schedule for surveillance following treatment is controversial. Most experts recommend frequent monitoring with blood tests and imaging studies (eg, X-ray, CT scan) every few months for the first few years, decreasing to twice per year for several years, then once per year for the man's lifetime.
After RPLND — For men who undergo retroperitoneal lymph node dissection (RPLND) for limited-stage disease, most experts recommend blood testing for tumor markers and a chest X-ray every few months initially, decreasing to once per year after several years. CT scan of the abdomen and pelvis may be done less frequently because of the decreased risk of retroperitoneal relapse.
Advanced disease follow-up — Follow-up of men with advanced disease is similar to that of men with stage I disease. Follow-up does not begin until after the man has a complete response to chemotherapy. More intensive surveillance may be recommended for men who undergo chemotherapy for advanced disease followed by an RPLND.
TESTICULAR CANCER PROGNOSIS
Men with stage I, good-prognosis disease have an excellent chance for cure when treated appropriately (see 'Testicular cancer staging and classification' above). Men who have an intermediate or poor prognosis also generally respond well to treatment and require a more aggressive treatment regimen. Even for those with a poor prognosis, approximately one-half can be cured.
Progress in treating cancer requires that better treatments be identified through clinical trials, which are conducted all over the world. A clinical trial is a carefully controlled way to study the effectiveness of new treatments or new combinations of known therapies. Ask for more information about clinical trials or read about clinical trials at:
Videos addressing common questions about clinical trials are available from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (http://www.cancer.net/pre-act).
WHERE TO GET MORE INFORMATION
Your health care provider is the best source of information for questions and concerns related to your medical problem.
This article will be updated as needed on our web site (www.uptodate.com/patients). Related topics for patients, as well as selected articles written for health care professionals, are also available. Some of the most relevant are listed below.
Patient level information — UpToDate offers two types of patient education materials.
The Basics — The Basics patient education pieces answer the four or five key questions a patient might have about a given condition. These articles are best for patients who want a general overview and who prefer short, easy-to-read materials.
Beyond the Basics — Beyond the Basics patient education pieces are longer, more sophisticated, and more detailed. These articles are best for patients who want in-depth information and are comfortable with some medical jargon.
Professional level information — Professional level articles are designed to keep doctors and other health professionals up-to-date on the latest medical findings. These articles are thorough, long, and complex, and they contain multiple references to the research on which they are based. Professional level articles are best for people who are comfortable with a lot of medical terminology and who want to read the same materials their doctors are reading.
Anatomy and pathology of testicular tumors
Clinical manifestations, diagnosis, and staging of testicular germ cell tumors
Treatment of stage I seminoma
Epidemiology of and risk factors for testicular germ cell tumors
Initial risk-stratified treatment for advanced testicular germ cell tumors
Management of stage I nonseminomatous germ cell tumors
Management of stage II nonseminomatous germ cell tumors
Overview of the treatment of testicular germ cell tumors
Active surveillance following orchiectomy for stage I testicular germ cell tumors
Posttreatment follow-up for men with testicular germ cell tumors
Radical inguinal orchiectomy for testicular germ cell tumors
Retroperitoneal lymph node dissection for early stage nonseminomatous testicular germ cell tumors
Serum tumor markers in testicular germ cell tumors
Approach to surgery following chemotherapy for advanced testicular germ cell tumors
Diagnosis and treatment of relapsed and refractory testicular germ cell tumors
Treatment of stage II seminoma
Treatment-related toxicity in men with testicular germ cell tumors
The following organizations also provide reliable health information.
●American Cancer Society
●National Cancer Institute
●American Society of Clinical Oncology
- Arai Y, Kawakita M, Okada Y, Yoshida O. Sexuality and fertility in long-term survivors of testicular cancer. J Clin Oncol 1997; 15:1444.
- National Cancer Institute. Testicular Cancer (PDQ®): Treatment: Patient Version. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/testicular/Patient (Accessed on March 16, 2012).
- Amato RJ, Ro JY, Ayala AG, Swanson DA. Risk-adapted treatment for patients with clinical stage I nonseminomatous germ cell tumor of the testis. Urology 2004; 63:144.
- Kondagunta GV, Bacik J, Bajorin D, et al. Etoposide and cisplatin chemotherapy for metastatic good-risk germ cell tumors. J Clin Oncol 2005; 23:9290.
- American Cancer Society. Testicular cancer. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/testicularcancer/index (Accessed on March 16, 2012).
All topics are updated as new information becomes available. Our peer review process typically takes one to six weeks depending on the issue.
- TESTICULAR CANCER OVERVIEW
- TYPES OF TESTICULAR CANCER
- TESTICULAR CANCER SYMPTOMS
- TESTICULAR CANCER DIAGNOSIS
- TESTICULAR CANCER STAGING AND CLASSIFICATION
- TESTICULAR CANCER TREATMENT
- TESTICULAR CANCER TREATMENT SIDE EFFECTS AND COMPLICATIONS
- MONITORING AFTER TESTICULAR CANCER TREATMENT
- TESTICULAR CANCER PROGNOSIS
- CLINICAL TRIALS
- WHERE TO GET MORE INFORMATION