This post is part of our Survivorship Week series, June 2-9.
"I was ignorant on the subject. I didn't even know you could get cancer there," says Brent Irby of his testicular cancer diagnosis in 2000 at 21 years old.
Unbeknown to many, testicular cancer is the most common cancer in men between ages 20 and 34. The good news is that if it is caught early, the cure rate is more than 95%.
On the fast track
Irby noticed the first sign of his testicular cancer through self-examination.
When he complained of pain in his testicle, his primary care doctor gave him a prescription for antibiotics, standard treatment for a probable infection. Symptoms of testicular cancer can include a:
- Hard, painless lump in a testicle
- Change in consistency of the testicles
- Feeling of heaviness in the scrotum
- Dull ache in the lower abdomen or groin
- Sudden collection of fluid in the scrotum
- Feeling of pain or discomfort in a testicle or in the scrotum
Luckily, his doctor decided to double-check his initial diagnosis with an ultrasound, which revealed a mass in his testicle.
A team of oncologists in MD Anderson's Department of Genitourinary Medical Oncology diagnosed Irby with testicular cancer, which had metastasized to lymph nodes in his back and a lung. They laid out an aggressive and experimental treatment protocol.
Within a week of Irby's diagnosis, Louis Pisters, M.D., professor in MD Anderson's Department of Urology, performed an orchiectomy (removal of a testicle).
Before his diagnosis, Irby was cruising through his last semester at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. His courses were easy, and he had already secured a full-time job for after graduation.
"I was young, in college and having fun," he says. "Everything happened so quickly. It turned my world upside down."
At the time, he focused more on having lost a testicle than on his diagnosis.
"When they removed the testicle, it was tough and embarrassing," he says. "For a man, it affects your pride."
What helped him accept the physical change was the realization that had he not had his testicle removed, the cancer would have killed him -- without a fighting chance.
"It doesn't bother me anymore," Irby says. "I don't think about it at all."
For the next six months, he underwent chemotherapy treatments to rid his body of the cancer.
"From day one of treatment I mentally prepared myself, and focused on what I had to do to beat the cancer," Irby says. "I pushed forward and didn't look back."
Physically drained by his treatment, Irby moved in with his parents.
"I was in pretty bad shape," he says. "I stayed positive, but physically it got me down. It was a real struggle."
While home bound, he was able to finish his course work online and by correspondence.
Through his strong will and determination, Irby earned his bachelor of science degree in agriculture and attended his commencement with his cancer in remission.
Support to beat it again
In 2005, when he was 25 years old and two years into remission, Irby's cancer reappeared in his lymph nodes. After three months of chemotherapy, he beat it again.
"Y'all pretty much saved my life two times," he says of MD Anderson.
To be sure that he's had his last battle with cancer, Irby visits the Genitourinary Cancer Survivorship Clinic annually for his long-term, follow-up care.
During both of his battles with cancer, Irby had support from his parents, family, friends and long-time girlfriend Natalie, now his wife of seven years.
When he was first diagnosed, Natalie and Irby had been dating for a little more than two years.
"It would've been easy for her to move on, especially knowing how young we were," he says of her. "But she stuck by my side the whole time. I knew she was 'the one'."
A fortunate life
Now 33 and cancer free, Irby lives in East Bernard, Texas, with his family. He owns a land-clearing business, and Natalie is a stay-at-home mom for their three children, Kylie, Krista and Blair.
Irby and his wife always knew that they wanted to have children. However, a main side effect of testicular cancer treatment is infertility or low sperm counts.
Irby used sperm banking as their "insurance policy," in case they couldn't conceive naturally. With three children younger than 3, he recently canceled his unused account.
"I was always worried about being able to have kids naturally, and now it's the other way around. Its time to quit!" he jokes. "We've got our hands full."
Irby feels blessed to have his faith, family and health. He also feels fortunate to have had his cancer and hopes that the experimental protocol he underwent will lead to treatments to help others.