“What seems to be the problem?” – The question I had feared from the moment I entered the UNC clinic door. In a low voice I said, “Lower abdominal pain and … (clearing my throat) … testicular pain”. “Oh… I see. Take a seat and someone will be with you shortly.”
I have worked in health care in one manner or another for the past 5 years and yet giving a simple answer to the question made me feel like I was eight years old. Why is this such a taboo issue for men? I mean women have to endure an invasive screening at least once a year.
As I sat down I began thinking about the embarrassment I was about to endure. Then I decided to think rationally about my fear. Why do we men fear this exam so much?
- They are going to ask me personal questions and possibly judge me based on my responses.
- What tests will I have to take?
- I know I will have to “slide my shorts down” to be examined by the doctor which is about as awkward as it gets.
- What if I get an erection during the examination?
- What if I am diagnosed with some sort of cancer?
To make matters even worse, I had just given a talk to male college students about the importance of male self-examinations and being checked out by a doctor if anything is out of the ordinary. Now I found myself in the exact position I had discussed and realize how meaningless my words of encouragement had been. I think I may have even used the term “man-up” and told them to just “do what needs to be done”.
Now sitting in the lobby faced with four very real fears I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony of the situation. As I was called into the triage room I faced Fear Number 1- the personal questions and judgment. I was of course correct that there were personal questions but, they were very necessary. I began looking at the situation as an episode from House and was determined to give them all the information to diagnose me correctly the first time rather than the 4th time as I was inches from death. The only judgment I felt came from me, not the RN taking down the information.
While Fear Number 1 was put to rest I still had to face Fear Numbers 2-4 which were the actual examinations and the fear of an untimely erection. The tests included a blood draw, peeing in a cup, and, of course, the testicular exam. To my relief there was no swab of my urethra (the Q-tip test). The testicular exam was only slightly more invasive than the typical “turn your head and cough” and, lasted less than 10 seconds. In addition, once I lowered my pants I didn’t even consider the thought of acquiring an erection given the cold clinic setting and the sound of the latex glove. But to be honest, even if I had it would have been a normal physiological reaction and completely ignored by the doctor.
Having successfully made it past Fears 1-4 I felt much more at ease about the examination process. I was simply a guy who was concerned about some testicular pain. In fact, on the follow up exam I can honestly say I wasn’t even nervous.
In reality, the fear of what might be causing my pain greatly outweighed all my other fears. Testicular cancer is the number one form of cancer for males ages 15 – 35. In addition, there are many other problems that can occur in this age range such as epididymitis which causes inflammation above the testes, a major cause of male hospital visits each year. Most testicular pain problems can be cured or treated with simple medication. Even testicular cancer has a high rate of being cured, especially if caught at an early stage. My particular condition turned out to be a very common and easily curable aliment. However, if it had been more serious, early detection would have been critical.
I wish I could go back in time to explain the process to the students with whom I spoke. I would reassure them that our fears of testicular examinations are greatly blown out of proportion. I urge all men to conduct regular testicular self-exams and to be seen by a doctor if anything is out of the ordinary.