Learning to be a Survivor

Posted by: Jean Lloyd - March 23, 2018

Ben Glassner (University of Kansas, 1998) beat testicular cancer shortly after he graduated from college, but nearly 20 years later he’s still learning to be a survivor.

Glassner was wrapping up his college career when he lost his dad to a brain tumor. Working through his grief during that period, he completed a bachelor’s degree in history. With an additional year of school, he added a psychology degree. Then, after a stint backpacking in Europe, he moved to Colorado to start his first job.

From graduation until after he started the job, Glassner didn’t have health insurance. He wasn’t worried; like most young people he had a sense of invincibility. Then, right after his health insurance became active, he found a lump. “Having just lost my dad and having that overall awareness in my life about cancer, I decided to go check it out. Otherwise, I probably just would've thought it was just nothing. It didn't hurt. There was no pain, nothing like that,” he said.

Glassner had just moved to a new city, so he found a doctor who told him it was just a cyst. That’s when he learned to be his own advocate. “I literally had to tell the guy, "I'm not gonna leave your office until you get me a referral for an ultrasound because my gut tells me this is something to get checked out,” Glassner said.

From the ultrasound, the oncologist identified a mass. So the next day, he had an orchiectomy, surgical removal of a testicle. Doctors told him it was one of the smallest masses they'd ever seen with testicular cancer identifying embryonal cell, non-seminoma -- a fast-moving cancer. “It's very aggressive,” said Glassner, “But it's like building a house with toothpicks, it's easy to knock down as well. There's good chemotherapy for it.”

Facing a 60 percent chance that the cancer moved elsewhere in his body, Glassner underwent an RPLND, a complex surgical procedure to remove abdominal lymph nodes. Regarding this major, all-day surgery Glassner explained, “They have to remove all your vital organs to get to this place. Out of 27 lymph nodes, three came back microscopic. It had moved on.”

He opted for an aggressive treatment of preventive chemotherapy -- a lower amount of chemotherapy. “My story proves the point that yeah, it's curable, but man, you gotta get on it quickly,” said Glassner. “I found one of the smallest lumps they've ever found. I found it extremely early, and it was extremely aggressive.”

After major surgeries and two rounds of chemotherapy, he beat cancer but faced a lifetime learning to be a survivor. Glassner sees an unmet need to focus on teaching people how to share their story and understand how to live with aches and pains, fear, emotion and the trauma of a major illness.

Last year Glassner attended a summit for the nonprofit Testicular Cancer Foundation (TCF). The organization provides education and support to adult males to raise awareness about testicular cancer, the most commonly diagnosed cancer among males age 15-34.

“Testicular cancer is 99 percent beatable if caught in stage 1,” said Connor O'Leary, Survivor / Chief Mission Officer for TCF, “yet we have a young man dying every single day from the disease."

TCF works to increase awareness, ensure men know the warning signs, and know how to perform a simple testicular self-exam. A simple testicular self-exam once a month can greatly increase the likelihood of catching the disease in stage 1, increases survivorship rates and can eliminate the need for additional treatment like chemotherapy, radiation, and additional surgery. “One of our programs provides a free shower card to every household in America with the hopes of encouraging men to become advocates for their own health and aware of any changes they may see or feel,” said O’Leary.

Learning about TCF, meeting others and telling his story nearly two decades after his diagnosis and treatment was an aha moment said Glassner. “I need to be doing this. This feels good and I can help people.”

He wants to continue to share the message of how to support loved ones and a focus on learning to become a survivor.

“It's not like you're cured and everything's back to normal. Everything is different now. The first five years of follow-up were intense, a lot of scares, spots on scans. Things that if all of us went and got scanned every three months, they'd probably find weird things floating around. But when I went through that, I didn't have any communication with anybody about any of that. So it was just living in fear,” he said.

“What happens in the medical community is they do their job. They get rid of the disease and then they pat you on the back and say, ‘All right, you're cured. You're lucky to be here. Go live life to the fullest.’”

Today he sees more understanding directed to cancer patients and the need to learn how to become a survivor compared to past decades. Through sharing his story, he hopes to increase that understanding and spread awareness about testicular cancer.

Learn more: https://testicularcancer.org/learn-more

April is Testicular Cancer Awareness Month

What is testicular cancer?

Testicular cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of one or both testicles. The testicles are two egg-shaped glands located inside the scrotum (a sac of loose skin that lies directly below the penis). The testicles are held within the scrotum by the spermatic cord, which also contains the vas deferens and vessels and nerves of the testicles. [2]

The testicles are the male sex glands and produce testosterone and sperm. Germ cells within the testicles produce immature sperm that travel through a network of tubules (tiny tubes) and larger tubes into the epididymis (a long coiled tube next to the testicles) where the sperm mature and are stored. [2]

Almost all testicular cancers start in the germ cells. The two main types of testicular germ cell tumors are seminomas and nonseminomas. These two types grow and spread differently and are treated differently. Nonseminomas tend to grow and spread more quickly than seminomas. Seminomas are more sensitive to radiation. A testicular tumor that contains both seminoma and nonseminoma cells is treated as a nonseminoma. [2]

The good news is that it is one of the most treatable and survivable types of cancer. When detected early, 99% percent of guys diagnosed with testicular cancer survive it and go on to lead normal, active lives.[1]

According to The Testicular Cancer Foundation, the best way for men to be proactive is to do a monthly self-exam of their testicles to check for lumps, hardness or swelling. It’s easy to do in the shower.

[1] National Cancer Institute, 2006. http://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/testis.html?statfacts_page=testis.html&x=17&y=13

[2] National Cancer Institute, 2014. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/testicular/Patient

Shared with permission from the Testicular Cancer Foundation