What started as a humorous post on the social news site reddit has sparked a discussion about the early detection of testicular cancer and whether taking a pregnancy test can save lives from a disease that, for obvious reasons, affects only men. The story even made it to the ABC News health section online.
Earlier this week, a reddit user posted a comic telling his story of using an old pregnancy test left in his medicine cabinet for kicks. Imagine his surprise when it came back positive. It wasn’t long before a fellow “redditor” weighed in saying, “If this is true, you should check yourself for testicular cancer. Seriously. Google it.” A couple days later, a follow up post from the man’s friend used another comic to tell the rest of the story; the man went to the doctor and indeed, a small tumor was found.
It turns out pregnancy tests work by detecting a hormone called Beta-HCG (human chorionic gonadotropin), produced by the cells of the placenta during pregnancy. Beta-HCG is also excreted by some kinds of tumors, including some, but not all testicular cancers.
This led to comments that suggested every man should use pregnancy tests to screen for testicular cancer. After all, it is the most common cancer in men ages 15 to 35. But people who have been watching news about cancer know that screening is an issue that’s not as as simple as it would appear. Being able to catch some tumors early does not always mean we should implement broad screening, as the harms of testing can outweigh the potential benefits.
We asked Ted Gansler, M.D., director of medical content, if using a pregnancy test was a good idea.
“At the time of diagnosis, only a small minority of men with testicular cancer have HCG levels high enough to be detected by a home urine pregnancy test. More sensitive blood tests for HCG with a lower cutoff level could detect a somewhat higher percentage, but several non-cancerous conditions can cause false positive results. Current evidence does not indicate that screening the general population of men with a urine test for HCG (or with urine or blood tests for any other tumor marker) can find testicular cancer early enough to reduce testicular cancer death rates.”
So what can men do? As detailed on our web site, a lump on the testicle is the first sign of this cancer. The American Cancer Society advises men to be aware and see a doctor right away if they find a lump. Dr. Gansler continues,
“In order to find testicular cancers at an early stage, the American Cancer Society recommends that doctors include a testicular exam as part of a routine cancer-related checkup and that men be aware of testicular cancer and see a doctor right away if they find a lump in a testicle.”
As a matter of fact, even regular testicular self-exams have not been studied enough to show they reduce the death rate from this cancer. Without that evidence, the American Cancer Society cannot make a recommendation on regular testicular self-exams for all men. But we do think men should to decide for themselves whether or not to do regular exams. And to help make that possible, instructions for testicular exams are included on our web site.