Survivor Spotlight: Tyler Dennison
I was diagnosed with testicular cancer three days after returning from my honeymoon.
Worst. Wedding present. Ever.
I remember standing in front of a mirror in a hotel room in Athens, Greece. I had just gotten out of the shower and was drying off, when “it” caught my attention. Hotel mirrors are the worst. They’re always huge and well-lit and show you all the little things you’d rather not see. Usually it’s a fat roll or unsightly body hair, but for me, “it” was a testicle that had swollen significantly in size.
My testicle had been this way for about a month or so. I remember it being an issue the week before my wedding. I didn’t think too much of it at the time. In hindsight, I was probably scared to find out what was actually wrong. I had a wedding quickly approaching and the last thing I needed was any kind of health scare. But looking at myself in that mirror, I finally realized that something was amiss. I walked out of the bathroom and informed my wife that I had a “man problem” (there’s no smooth way to broach the topic of a massive testicle to your wife). I explained to her what was going on and she comforted me as any good spouse would, saying things like “I’m sure it’s nothing.” In the end, we both agreed I should see the doctor when we returned home.
I met with my primary physician a few days later. He poked. He prodded. He examined. He hypothesized that what I had was something called a “hydrocele,” which is basically a fluid build-up around the testicle. He wasn’t certain about this, so he recommended I get an ultrasound and see an urologist.
So the next day I found myself laying uncomfortably atop a cold table, while a woman examined me. She recognized immediately that there was something wrong with the testicle. She asked if I had been kicked or punched in testicles recently. Umm I definitely would remember something like that, lady! She told me she would send the ultrasound results to my urologist. I asked her if she had an opinion. It was then she used the words “a mass” to describe the testicle. A mass? As in “a mass that is cancerous” I thought. Things were getting uncomfortable for me.
Fast forward a few hours later and I was patiently waiting in my urologist’s waiting room, with men who were significantly older than I. I was definitely brining the average age of that room down a decade or so. This can’t be serious I thought. I’m young after all! I’m in fairly good shape. My family has no significant history of cancer. I convinced myself that the diagnosis I was about to receive would be mundane in nature.
The nurse entered the waiting room and called my name. She collected a urine sample (I got pretty good at peeing on command in the urology office!). She collected a blood sample. Finally I saw the doctor. He examined me. He poked. He prodded. He whipped out his handy, mini, cancer-detecting flashlight and tried to shine a light through my testicle. No luck. That ruled out the hydrocele. It took him all of about three minutes to tell me that what he thought I was dealing with was cancer. Was he sure? No. Was he pretty sure? Yes. I held it together emotionally. It didn’t seem real. I sat there as his words echoed in my ears. He explained that surgery was needed immediately. He told me to see the nurse to arrange further testing. At that point, I was still keeping it together, but I was slipping. I joked around with the nurse, but I knew I had to get out of there quickly before I completely lost it. I walked to my car and got inside. I called my wife. Keep in mind that she and I had been married for all of three weeks at this point. I tried to tell her the news, only I couldn’t get the words out. I was scared. I couldn’t comprehend what this meant. Was I dying? Would I need chemotherapy? Would I lose my testicle? Could I ever have kids?
I won’t dwell on the details of my surgeries and subsequent recovery. Shortly after my diagnosis, I had an orchiectomy. A few months later, I underwent a retroperitoneal lymph node dissection (RPLND), which revealed that my cancer was confined to my testicle. I went home. I rested. I recovered. Eventually I went back to work and got on with my life.
Looking back, I was lucky. I was so lucky. I caught my cancer early. I avoided the dreaded chemotherapy. I had two successful surgeries and two amazing doctors. Some are not so lucky. Some face a physical battle that makes my situation look like a walk in the park. My struggle was overwhelmingly mental. From the moment I was told “you have cancer,” the mind games commenced. I assumed the worst. The negativity creeped in.
The nights were the worst. My wife would fall asleep and I would lay beside her, wide awake, with my brain firing on all cylinders. I would think about dying. I would get emotional. I would toss and turn, hoping that my wife wouldn’t wake up and discover that I was far more scared than I was leading her to believe.
After my diagnosis, everyone would say to me “stay positive!” Anyone who has been in a similar situation knows that this is impossible. You cannot stay positive 100% of the time. I’d have good days, where I felt like I could conquer the world. I’d have bad days, where all I wanted to do was stay in bed and feel sorry for myself.
So what do you do? How do you win the mental battle? You surround yourself with positive people. You stay busy. You live your life the best you can. Go to the movies. Go for walks. Hang out with family members and friends. I did all those things.
Maintain an active dialogue with your doctors. Ask them anything and everything you want to know. It’s your cancer, you have the right to know everything about it. Best advice I can give: don’t Google anything about your cancer. Seriously! It’s a bad idea. Once you fall down that rabbit hole, you’ll eventually find misinformation and worst case scenarios and you’ll frighten the crap out of yourself. Slowly, you’ll learn how to live with your cancer shadow following you around. Things will get easier. Your mind will begin to filter out the negative and embrace the positive.
I’m writing about my story for two reasons. For one, I do it because facing those old fears and feelings are good for me. If what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, then I am undoubtedly stronger now than I was before my diagnosis. Everyday life struggles aren’t so intimidating anymore. I’m not so quick to feel sorry for myself about things that ultimately don’t matter. Having cancer sucks. Finding things out about yourself in the face of cancer doesn’t.
I share this story also to help anyone who is battling testicular cancer. They say males as young as 15 years old can develop the cancer. 15! I can’t fathom being in high school and dealing with the things I dealt with as a 29 year old adult.
Let’s face it. Most of us men aren’t exactly open and communicative in the first place. We play things close to the vest. Compound that with a disease that affects our testicles, our “manhood”, so to speak, and you have a situation most men are afraid to talk about. If I hadn’t confided in my wife in that hotel room in Greece, who knows how long I would have waited before consulting a doctor.
It’s 2016. In case you haven’t noticed, cancer is everywhere. It doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t wait for your next check-up at the doctor. You have to be proactive and pay attention to your body. Don’t be afraid to check into your health. Don’t assume you know best what’s going on inside of you. If caught early, testicular cancer can be treated effectively.
One day cancer will be beat. I firmly believe that. Too many smart people are working on this problem. Too much money is being thrown at the issue. There will be a major breakthrough one day. Until then, the only effective defense is awareness. Those of us who are survivors should make it our mission to inform and educate. All cancers are worth the conversation. However, considering how common it is for certain men and how soon it can strike, there is no reason why testicular cancer shouldn’t be at the forefront of the conversation.
As of today I am cancer-free. I’m just now getting to the point where I can look back at my journey and understand what it means. I hope thousands of people read this and share this, but that’s probably not realistic. I hope it does some good. Whether it comforts someone battling testicular cancer or inspires another to consult a doctor, then it was worth my time.