Peter K. Dearden
A month or so ago I got a pain. A nagging, annoying pain in what a doctor referred to as ‘the groinal area’. In a testicle to be precise.
Now, as a possessor of a Y chromosome, I did what needed to be done, I ignored it. But it hurt.
Now when your testicles hurt you want to know why, so I examined myself- remembering a friend who survived testicular cancer. He told me that his cancer-free outcome was due to finding a lump early.
I examined. I found a lump. I freaked out.
I went on the internet. I freaked out some more.
Then I freaked out.
Then I talked to my awesome wife who sent me to a doctor, who couldn’t find it despite extensive searching of the groinal area. We found it in the end (joint effort) and he sat me down and said he didn’t think there was a problem. The size, shape and location weren’t consistent with cancer. Most lumps aren’t cancer, and that there was a good chance I would be O.K. I love it when doctors play the averages, but he was very helpful, and booked me in for an ultrasound, saying that, it would be a few weeks away and not to worry because, even it it was cancer, I could wait that long.
I hate waiting.
I think everyone around me hated me waiting too.
Now, I am a geneticist. But it seems unlike every other geneticist in the world, I do not work on cancer. Sometimes I denigrate those who work on cancer a bit, because trying to understand the molecular causes of a process like cancer, which is like an out of control car, is very hard. I think we need to understand how normal cells work, rather than what goes wrong when they don’t. Just my opinion, and the fact that my Cancer colleagues have made huge strides in the treatment of cancer that has a direct impact on the length and quality of life of patients, should really make me change my mind. It should. And I thought, if I do have cancer, at least these very smart people will have developed some solutions.
But as a geneticist, I know what cancer is. I know it is a result of a vicious evolutionary process in our own cells. Cells that divide fast will produce more cells, if they invade too, they win the evolutionary race. In doing so they kill their host with their selfish, out of control behaviour. I know it is the downside to all the advantages of being multicellular. The monkey that has clung to our backs from the origin of multicellular organisms.
Cancer is the disruption of all the processes I study in embryos that make cells and tissues and make them works as an organism. It is the disruption of pattern, process and order.
So then the ultrasound; all new for me, though I watched my long-suffering wife go through tons of them while she was pregnant.
And as the ultrasound went on, and the internal bits of my testes were displayed on the big screen for all to see, my hopes rose. Structures were intact, the pattern of cells and tissues were normal, there was nothing that looked like cancer. Indeed, I have a cyst, stress induced apparently, and I am happy about it!
But the real miracle here is the ultrasound. The ability to look inside our bodies and see what is happening, when from the outside there is little clue. Technologies like ultrasound and MRI allow us to see the structures of ourselves in ways that would have seemed magical 100 years ago. Ultrasound was first used medically in 1956, and has revolutionised medicine, especially obstetrics.
Seeing also helped me. I know what cancer would have looked like. This wasn’t it. Seeing really was believing. Thanks to all involved in developing these technologies, and allowing us a better understanding of ourselves.