I’m writing about my experiences with testicular cancer as a part of LiveStrong day. For every Tweet and Facebook post made using #LiveStrongDay donors associated with the LiveStrong program will donate $1.
* Update I’m growing a mustache for Movember, an event that raises awareness for men’s health issues like testicular cancer and prostate cancer. You can donate or grow your own here: http://mobro.co/seantgreen
Sometime in early July I decided to take my dog Buddy out for a long walk. The Silver Lake sun bore down upon us while beads of sweat rolled down my face, as I approached my place I experienced an odd feeling. Not to bore you with scientific mumbo jumbo, but it felt like I had been gently hit in the nuts. It wasn’t super painful, and nothing really hit my nuts, the only thing that happened was that my thigh had grazed my testicle, but I noticed it. As a mesh shorts aficionado I chalked it up to a classic realignment issue that is not uncommon with that form of active wear and moved on. Then I started noticing it more frequently at night when I was sleeping. When I would sleep on my side I would often find myself having to readjust things, which was not uncommon, but started to seem more frequent.
Early on I convinced myself these odd issues, were just psychosomatic. My career, financial situation and overall life in general was stressing me out and I assumed these occurrences were related to that intense stress load I had been dealing with. Occurrences kept happening over the next few weeks, no pain, but I just starting noticing my testicle, one in particular. Concerns started to creep in my head, and I would often times check myself, but the testicle felt completely normal. I experienced no pain and sold myself on the idea that it was completely in my head. There was no obvious bump and I wasn’t in pain, I convinced myself my body was just creating physical symptoms in an attempt to handle the amount of mental stress my everyday life was creating.
My friend’s wedding in Catalina arrived, and as the best man I was responsible for the speech and doing whatever I could to help make the affair run smoothly. I really enjoyed the trip and the celebration, but in the back of my head this nagging issue with my testicle was beginning to plague me. At this point I realized there was something going on. Finally I caved and asked my girlfriend to see if she could tell the difference between my two testicles. It’s really tough to feel a testicle and describe it as normal, but I thought an impartial judge may help me realize it was all a mental fabrication. I presented myself, and she immediately singled out the testicle in question. My heart sank. Something was definitely awry.
I buried any negative thoughts in the back of my head and returned home from Catalina. I thought about going to the doctor, but also was realistic enough to realize I had no money or health insurance. I knew people who had testicular cancer and from their experiences and my research on-line it seemed that there would be some pain or some sort of bump to indicate a tumor. I had neither pain, nor a bump, just a nagging testicle that started to seem a little bigger. I also had a trip to the Montreal Comedy festival scheduled, with a stop in my home town and there was no way I was going to miss this.
I boarded a flight for the East Coast and figured this was something I could deal with when I got back. I had a great set in Philly and a couple good ones up in Canada before I returned back to my hometown Bethlehem for a night’s rest before flying back to Los Angeles. By this time the testicle in question had grown to something of noticeable difference, I knew I didn’t have cancer but I knew something was up. My Mom is an amazing nurse and wanted to tell her from the beginning, but waited until the last moment to spring it on her.
I just laid it out, “Mom something is up with my testicle.” After some nervous laughter my Mom urged me not to return to L.A. before getting it looked at. I explained to her that I would go to the free clinic in L.A. as soon as I returned. When she dropped me off at the airport she began crying and insisted I get it looked at. I did my best to calm her down and promised that it was just some weird issue, and that I would it get looked at when I returned to Los Angeles.
I got back to my place in Los Angeles around 6pm. The free clinic wouldn’t be open until the next morning, but something was gnawing at me. Seeing my Mom cry out of concern was really tough to deal with, so I immediately walked to the nearest medical facility the Silver Lake Medical Center. Apparently the majority of clients at the Silver Lake Medical Center are clinically insane, which would explain the intake nurse’s aghast expression when I asked, ‘Hey I’m looking for a doctor?’ Here are a few samples from their Yelp reviews, “Incompetent, unprofessional and extremely scary place,” or as one lady described it “Terrifying!!!!!”, the most positive review came from Moshe R. who depicted the facility simply as “Decent place.”
I eventually found the urgent care portion of the center and filled out the necessary paper work. I convinced myself this was just some weird fluid build up and I would be in and out. In the patient’s room I waited as an Indian doctor came in. He got down to business and inspected my testicles with his hand. Hah! I worked on that last sentence for a while and that’s the least weird I could make it. He ordered a scrotal ultrasound and told me to return to the waiting room and “enjoy the Olympics”.
I entered the ultrasound room and laid on the examining table. The lights were dimmed low and a demure Asian women entered with me laid on my back pants-less. I experienced a feeling of déjà vu, although their was no guarantee this experience would have an happy ending. In broken English she asked me if I had ever had an ultrasound before, I replied not since my last pregnancy. No response. I knew that it was a really good line and assumed she hadn’t heard me so I repeated the joke but at a much louder volume NOT SINCE THE LAST TIME I WAS PREGNANT! Still no laughs, but she attempted to go with the riff asking if it was a boy or a girl. For some reason I said, ‘both because I had twins’. No one laughed and the back and forth did little to break the awkward tension in the room.
Later when administering the ultrasound, by rubbing a bar code reading like device over my testicles she instructed me to move my ‘thing’. At first I was honestly confused, I go what ‘thing’. She said thing and pointed at my genitals. I figured out she meant my penis, but she was too embarrassed to say penis. I then baited her into a who’s on first like routine, where she eventually caved and said PENIS! At least I got a good laugh.
The doctor examined the results and said it was some sort of cyst and fluid had built up in it. He added that I should still get it checked out by a urologist, and gave me a list of doctors I could call. The next day I called one of the urologists on the list and the best he could do was an appointment three weeks down the line. I thought about my Mom and knew that was too long to wait, so I hopped on a bus to the Saban Free Health Clinic on Beverly.
The free health clinic is exactly what you imagine it to be, a plain medical facility engulfed in a chorus of unsettling bone rattling coughs. The application you fill out is just a lot of questions alluding to the fact that by being there you probably have H.I.V. The one funny part in the questionnaire is where they ask “In the past three months have you had oral sex [ ] anal sex [ ] or vaginal sex???” The three question marks made me laugh aloud, it’s like missionary position had gone the way of the dodo bird, kids these days.
The doctor at the free clinic was much more concerned about the enlarged testicle than the Indian fella at the urgent care facility. She wrote me a referral to the emergency room at LA County USC downtown. A referral to the emergency room seemed like a bizarre notion to me. At the bus stop I re-examined the results of the scrotal ultrasound it read, “cyst inside a testicular mass”. My only thought was “fuck, he really downplayed that testicular mass thing!” I became seriously worried for the first time, but resigned myself to the fact that I would get it figured out tomorrow at the hospital.
I awoke the morning of August 8th at about 8:30 am, did some work at my house and then rode my bicycle downtown. LA was in the middle of a heat wave and I was sweating my balls off (one of the last times I got to use the expression) by the time I arrived at LA county hospital. Thankfully for the doctors and myself I made sure to powder up prior to the journey. As I walked through the emergency room doors, I had to go through a metal detector and resigned myself that it probably wasn’t a good idea to bother with the Yelp reviews.
I officially checked in at 10:30 am and settled in for what was sure to be a long day. It’s a long waiting game, getting shuffled around from room to room, I passed the time by soaking up the colorful characters that surrounded me. One woman, a bit older, paraded around screaming, “IT’S NOT WHAT YOU THINK I’M JUST A LITTLE HOMELESS!!!” Another older man started freaking everyone out by streaking up and down the aisles in his wheelchair with a maniacal energy. It takes a lot for people to get pissed off at a guy in a wheel chair, but somehow he managed to pulled it off. When asked by security to stop he replied, “No, you slow down!” The retort got a lot of laughs and the wheelchair man seemingly won the crowd back with one solid line.
Clock struck 8:00 pm and I finally found my way into a hospital bed. I received another scrotal ultrasound, this time by some dude, so I didn’t even bother trying to make him laugh with my pregnancy riff. I got some blood work done and waited some more. I passed the time by nervously pacing around and watching this homeless guy steal the apple-sauces from the dinning carts. Then it was time for the doctor to see me.
I don’t know if it was the fact that he looked 17 years old or that he was Asian, but my first thought was ‘he can’t be a doctor he doesn’t even have pubes!’ Honestly this guy looked like he would ask Doogie Howser to buy him beer. I resigned myself in my racist instinct that he was after all an Asian and probably had his shit together. He began the conversation by apologizing “to have to meet under these circumstances.” My first thought was ‘wow this guy doesn’t know how to deliver good news!’
“So I’m assuming everyone has been telling you along the way that you have testicular cancer.” “No, not at all.” I laughed, as if to signal hey man no big deal. He explained to me that I caught it at a very early stage and that it’s the most treatable form of cancer. In most cases the mortality rate was only 1%, it never felt better to be a 99 per-center. He also discussed how LA County is partnered up with USC Medical School and that testicular cancer is one of their specialities. He even pointed out that one of their surgeons was the one who removed Tom Green’s testicle. Wow, stars are just like us after all. He excused himself and said he’d give me some time.
The tears started streaming down my face uncontrollably. I said aloud, “Fuck! Why is God testing me!”. I cried out of fear, but mostly knowing that telling my Mom would be insanely difficult and that it would cause her to cry which would cause me to cry even more. The doctor reentered and gave me the basics on potential surgery date and information on the sperm bank. My first question to the doctor was the same one I have with every medical diagnosis I’ve been given, “Can I drink on this?” I explained I was throwing a bbq the upcoming Saturday and he said it would have no affect. He wrote his phone number on a scrap piece of paper and I left the building at around 11:30pm that night.
A huge sense of relief hit me when I exited the hospital for a number of reasons, I was finally out of the hospital, I finally knew what was going on with my testicle and somehow my seat was still attached to my bicycle. I sat on the seat, crying some more while trying to compose myself enough to call my parents. My Dad answered the phone and I started explaining to him, then my Mom got on the phone and it got a lot tougher. I kept saying “I’m really sorry.” I know there is no rational reason to apologize for having cancer, but I just hate having people worry about me. After dropping a few L-bombs (love) with the folks, my Mom told me she would fly out the following week for the surgery. A few minutes later my girlfriend came and picked me up. She was extremely supportive and bought me a bottle of whiskey and a pizza. Man this cancer thing was already paying dividends.
I’m assuming most of you have never been to a sperm bank, but medically ordered masturbating was the one thing I was looking forward to in this experience. Sperm bank has an interesting cross section of clients, essentially it’s guys trying to start a family through invetro fertilization and guys with testicular cancer. I’m not trying to tell them how to run their business but they may want to leave these pamphlets with images like this in the lobby and not the specimen retriveal room. Speaking of the room, it was clearly designed by a woman. Through my years of stand up comedy I’ve heard a lot about guys masturbating habits, and never once has tasteful black and white erotic wallpaper ever come up. It’s weird paying $300 to masturbate to someone else’s porno collection, but somehow I managed to pull it off.
With the fun part over, the next few days I impatiently awaited the surgery. It couldn’t be done soon enough. My Mom came out and provided added support and another distraction to take my mind off the surgery. The horrific heat wave continued and the last week before surgery saw a massive growth in my now massive tumor. The blood work indicated that I had non-seminoma testicular cancer, which is the more aggressive of the two types.
Finally the day for surgery arrived. Once again it was hours upon hours spent waiting. The comedic highlight was a Latino Kenny Powers esque character who kept loudly explaining that his son was not a cholo, but that he got shot because he dressed like a cholo. Everyone seemed to have a good laugh at that explanation, including the kid who got shot. Eventually I got my own shot of morphine and a pretty comfortable hospital bed. I wasn’t in any pain, but hey I’m no square and it certainly made falling asleep that night easier.
I don’t remember much from the hospital stay. My girlfriend and Mom were there helping keep my mind in a positive framework. I do remember asking for jello because I was hungry and then asking for a spoon and I received a tongue depressor. Tough to complain though, I had my own clean room, a cable tv (even won some bets on pre-season football action, for all my locks check out my gambling podcast) and the aforementioned pain killers. The surgery went great and the doctor had good news, the cancer had not spread to my lymph nodes. The only shock from the experience was that while I was knocked out the surgeons had completely shaved me downstairs. If I had to guess it was probably one of the USC medical students who had pulled that unenviable task. I took solace in knowing that some kid out there had to take out a student loan for the privilege of shaving my nuts, what a country.
I was out of the hospital later that day and went home and began the recovery process. Recovery consisted of reading fantasy football magazines (3-1 in both leagues) and watching episodes of Breaking Bad. In hindsight Breaking Bad is probably not the television show to watch while recovering from cancer surgery. Fortunately for me I didn’t have to cook meth to meet my medical bills. I was back on stand doing stand up in New York six days later and didn’t miss a posting of my comedy podcast The Green Room.
There are a number of great programs like Healthy Way LA & LiveStrong to name a few that really helped me out financially. I know often times people have the idea that if you don’t have health insurance you will be left out to die on the streets, and while it’s nowhere near a perfect system there are a lot of amazing programs out there. A major reason I’m alive today is because I didn’t let my lack of coverage stop me from seeking medical attention. Especially when it comes to stuff like testicular cancer, time is of the essence so don’t be afraid to get it looked at. Worst case you pay $90 to have some Indian guy in Silver Lake massage your balls, it’s not that bad trust me.
As for the future, right now I’m in remission which means it hasn’t come back yet and my blood work is clean. You aren’t officially cleared till the five year period. If it does come back there is lymph node surgery and chemo options to wipe it out for good, but the important part of catching it early is already behind me. While watching Breaking Bad a quote really stuck with me, Walt said “When I first got ill I thought why me, then after I got better I thought again why me”. While my cancer is not nearly as dangerous as Walt’s it did make me realize how insanely lucky I am. Lucky to have caught it when I did, lucky to have a great girlfriend, a great dog, great friends, an amazing family and fortunate to live in a country where even the free medical care is still pretty damn great. It’s easy to go through life and take for granted all the blessings you’ve accumulated over the years. Hopefully you don’t have to face your own mortality to stop for a minute to take inventory of your life and truly be thankful.