David Montalvo getting chemotherapy. (Courtesy David Montalvo)

Op-ed: Love your huevos, my battle with testicular cancer

For Latino men in America, it’s a question of whether we prefer being associated with protein or fiber – in other words, do we call our paired pendulum ‘nuts’ and ‘berries’ or huevos.

I hadn’t given the question much thought until I was forced to talk about them with mother two months ago to tell her I drew the small straw on a rare cancer that seems to target young men. “Alla bajo,” I told her, unable to decide which noun to use. Huevos sounded too crass to use with her, and testiculo felt too foreign. I realized I’d never used either of these words with my parents. We always managed to talk around it, like the time I got an inguinal hernia in middle school; all my parents would say is en esa area.

“Pues en el testiculo,” I finally let out, knowing my relationship with her would forever be different.

Though testicular cancer is not common, studies show that the rate of incidence for Hispanic men trails the group with the highest rate, white non-Hispanic men. And the overall rate is increasing in the United States, finds the National Cancer Association. In 2009, when the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were published, of the 7,765 men who developed this nut-robbing cancer more than 1,200 were Hispanic. This year, I am one of the nearly 8,000 men expected to develop this disease. I wonder how many of them are just as tortured by how surprisingly limited our bilingual lexicon is.

I also wonder how many of these 8,000 discover that they have testicular cancer through self-exams. I didn’t, and my doctor didn’t catch it either during a routine physical exam.

Unlike some of the more common cancers, there is no formal screening for this one because, according to the CDC, it “would not be cost-effective” and “finding testicular cancer earlier would not change the mortality rate,” referring to its good survival rate. My doctor only caught mine after the physical exam, when I told him of an on-off pain and hardening texture on my left testicle. He sent me off for an ultrasound, and the rest has been a whirlwind of office visits and medical procedures, a runaway train still holding me hostage, that took off two months ago.

It was just a week after that physical exam and I was already in a hospital gown, on my back and on the operating table. I insisted that my urologist literally mark an X over the testicle to be removed. (I didn’t want to wake up to any more surprises.) And I spent a few weeks recovering before swapping my urologist for an oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where a greater, more sadistic beast than an orchiectomy awaited me.

Chemotherapy, besides being another frustrating word during my talks with mom, would take me on several journeys to the inferno that only Dante could understand.

For one week, I get tubed up through the veins on the backside of my hand, every day for four hours, each time feeling my body weakening, taste buds disappearing, head throbbing, and sounds and smells sharpening, a week long, lingering hangover from hell leaving me to fight nausea, headaches and hemorrhoids at home. From my Brooklyn brownstone apartment, ambulance sirens and whistling birds all sound the same, like the deafening screeching a subway makes during an impossible turn; a sunny day becomes as welcoming to my eyes as a staring contest with high-beam headlights; and the healthy foods that I trained myself to eat and grew to love turn against me. I get two weeks to recover from this chemo coma, and then start it all over again. And again.

And yet again, once more.

The goal of this four-cycle treatment is to kill any cancer that has spread to my lymph nodes, which, according to my oncologist, is very responsive to chemotherapy. But to ensure that the cancer has officially left the building, my likely next step is a complex surgical procedure to remove lymph nodes in the area behind my abdominal organs. That’s right, it means cutting me up and removing my major vital organs to scrape off those suckers.

This entire journey, of which I’m still in the midst, is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to endure on countless levels: physically, psychologically, emotionally, professionally, interpersonally and, well, in practically every way that makes David – David!

But, as Latinos, there is something stubborn about us that never lets us fold in the face of fear. We draw our strength and courage against even the most impossible difficulties on the belief that somewhere, somehow we’ve been through worse. At least, that’s what my mother tries to remind me of almost every day while she’s tending to her garden or wrangling her three dogs out in Texas. “Remember the wolf,” she says. “Remember La Rodilla del Diablo.”

Of her nine children, I’m the only one who would ever dare challenge the matriarch. Yes, I did survive a wolf attack when I was a toddler. And I also survived nearly drowning after falling into a natural whirlpool eerily called The Devil’s Knee.

Could they be worse than treating this cancer?


David Montalvo is a producer for CNBC’s Squawk on the Street and a business journalist, writing about his journey through testicular cancer on Tumblr called Monorchid Diaries.

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