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Do you need balls to have balls?

One of CALM’s resident females and, um, balls enthusiast, Rachel Stephenson, asks two-time testicular cancer survivor and moustache enthusiast Ben Bowers… ‘Do you need balls to have balls?’

So first things first. You’re a man with no balls. How did that come about? 

Clumsy! No, I was turning 26 and started to feel a bit uncomfortable in that region, I had a check and found a lump. Then I made the mistake of going online. When I did go to the doctor and finally got an ultrasound appointment, afterwards the consultant asked me if I’d had breakfast that morning. I thought that was a really nice thing to ask. I didn’t realise until ten minutes later why he’d actually asked me. There was a 99.9% chance I had cancer and they needed to operate to remove my testicle.

Were you more scared of the C word, of dying, of the surgery or losing a testicle?

I’d love to rename it. The word cancer can mean all sorts but the common perception is it’s a death sentence. Back then there was very little support and information. One of the best things I did was call my mates to tell them, because in thirty seconds they were taking the piss. That black humour can help.

I’d had my first wee – which is scary, but not as scary as my first wank.

Sounds like a bit of a headfuck.

It was very scary times. After the surgery I just wanted to get out of there, and they said I could go home once I’d had my first wee – which is scary, but not as scary as your first wank. I tried to stand and get dressed, but fell over. I’d walked in as a healthy young man and my dad pushed me out in a wheelchair. A few days later I went to a mate’s wedding on my own and I was no fit state to be doing that. I wanted to prove I was ok. That was pretty destructive in the long term. Looking back, I fell into depression. I remember sitting at home thinking I never want to go to the pub again, and I was happy with that.

That doesn’t sound like you at all. Was it the case that physically you’d had the all-clear but mentally you hadn’t got there?

I was having monthly check ups for the first year, to see if it had come back. The anxiety in the run-up was savage. All the guys I speak to agree that, in the week before your check-up, you’re shitting yourself that it’s going to come back.

But that is part of your story – the cancer coming back. Ding Ding! Round 2!

Yeah, my constant fears were validated! The gap was three and a half years. I’d been checking myself regularly and a few days after I turned 30 I found a lump on my remaining testicle. The ultrasound was inconclusive so, because it would be risky to remove my last bollock due to fertility issues, I had two choices: part-removal or watch and wait. My oncologist told me to get to work fathering a child naturally. Real gun-to-the-head pressure to conceive. When we got back from honeymoon and told the doctor Jess was pregnant it was a rush to operate, because the tumour had been growing. I came out of surgery minus another bollock and my follow-up MRI showed the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes.

Was that a shock?

Yeah, because we’d been monitoring it and my bloods looked ok. I had to start chemo straight away. I’d just started a new job, paid for a wedding and we had a baby on the way. Then, boom, I was told to get my shit in order. You won’t be able to work. You’re going to be tired, sick, your hair is going to fall out. All the implications that it had, from a mental health point of view, from a financial point of view… it was so hard. Then the chemo kicked in and it got a million times harder.

Had you met anyone else who had been through similar by then? 

I was still going it alone. I met someone else as I was finishing chemo. A friend of mine who works in TV introduced me to Charley Boorman from ‘Long Way Down’, who’d also lost a bollock. He called me up one day to invite me to a charity event which turned out to be Movember. They asked me if I wanted to get involved and share my story. Since then I’ve met so many men – too many men – who’ve lost a bollock.

All the implications that it had, from a mental health point of view, from a financial point of view… it was so hard. Then the chemo kicked in and it got a million times harder.

Speaking of which, nice moustache! How is your work at Movember helping men with their health and testicular cancer in particular?

I now sit on the Movember Foundation’s Global Research Advisory Committee for testicular cancer, which means I get to sit in a room with the smartest people on the planet for the disease: top researchers, top oncologists. There’s nothing about bollocks they don’t know. The Movember Foundation is the biggest investor in testicular cancer on the planet outside of governments, so we’re in a really good position to support men with the disease and change lives. We’ve seen breakthroughs in the genetics, so it’s getting easier to identify guys at risk of developing the disease or of not responding to treatment.

What’s it like to be involved in something where your experience can help others?

It’s cathartic. I find it helps to talk about it. I didn’t much to begin with because I wasn’t dealing with. It took me six years to address the issues I’d had. My behaviour had been changing and it ended up in divorce, which was a real catalyst. I was finally diagnosed with depression and anxiety and I got some professional help to manage that, which changed everything. I started to learn how to self-manage and understand the triggers, with the added complication of being on testosterone treatment.

How does that impact your everyday life?

I have artificial testosterone injections every 10 weeks in my bum, which hurts like a motherfucker for days. It’s better than not having it though: the alternatives are brittle bones, man boobs and then some. Because it’s slow release, every 10 weeks I go from full-on superhuman to a grumpy, blithering, tired, emotional mess. I’ll find things irritating that I wouldn’t normally. I’ve learnt to explain I can’t do anything about it, which is shit for the people around me because they have to just suck it up.

Are you happy dealing with that?

I can identify it and it’s a fact of life. I’ve had this situation for nearly six years and I feel like I’m on top of it. The science has come a long way. I know the American military are growing tiny testicles on the back of mice, because one of the first things that gets blown off is your bollocks. People have said for years “just grow a pair” and maybe one day I’ll be able to. Which would be amazing! Or would it? I probably don’t need them much these days, they just get in the way.

So you weren’t tempted to put a replacement or two in there?

It was mentioned the first time I was diagnosed but not brought up after that. I didn’t want or need anything else there, I’m not an underwear model. Even with none, I’m happy.

Indeed. When we first met, you literally showed me your ball bag right there at the bar…

You’re one of the few!

We were drunk, but that’s still pretty punchy. It seemed like a reflection of where you’ve got to in terms of sharing your experience. There wasn’t any vanity. It made me wonder, maybe you’re just cool with it?

I don’t think I was ever bothered about the physical. It was never the nuts, it was the cancer. It was the mental side too, but not body image as such. It was the stress, the fear.

What’s the protocol when you’re getting intimate with someone? Do they notice?

Yeah they pretty much notice! After my separation the dating world had moved on, with Tinder and so on. At what point do you bring it up? “Oh, by the way, if we get intimate there’s no undercarriage!” And all the implications that has long term – if it works out, kids aren’t happening naturally. I say leave it as late as possible! At the point of no return, when it’s going to become really obvious! [Laughs] I’m joking. You have to be open. It’s not that different from telling someone you have diabetes or a mental illness or kids. It could be a deal breaker for someone. Bring it up fairly early.

When you look at it overall, you’ve harnessed a lot for good. Would you say on balance it’s been a positive experience, to go through cancer twice?

It’s the impossible question. Looking back over all the really dark stuff that I’ve gone through, I am incredibly fortunate to be where I am now, with a beautiful daughter, a lovely girlfriend, a great job. Yeah I wish I had bollocks but who knows what would have happened if things had been different. There’s no point dwelling on the irrelevant. It’s about making the best of the situation you find yourself in.

I stay fit and healthy and keep getting monitored. I could find a million reasons to be negative, but through counselling I’ve learnt how to identify low moments and self-manage.

Is that what you’ve learnt, being able to make the best of situations?

I’ve learnt to be more pragmatic and more optimistic about things. I worry that the cancer may come back and that it increases my risk of heart disease by a factor of five. I’m also four times more likely to get prostate cancer. That’s hanging over me the rest of my life. So I stay fit and healthy and keep getting monitored. I could find a million reasons to be negative, but through counselling I’ve learnt how to identify low moments and self-manage. I have days where I cry, or panic, or shit myself, but they’re less frequent than the days where I’m positive and upbeat. The testosterone plays a part. I just try and not worry. I have a six-year-old daughter, there’s plenty of worry ahead!

This is CALMzine’s ‘Talking Balls’ issue but it’s not all about nuts. Do you think men find it hard to cope with ballsing stuff up?

Yeah, because men feel programmed to be competitive, to be successful. There’s an expectation on men to be good at everything.

But none of us are immune to failure. How do you deal with a balls up?

I’m very competitive with myself, I want to do the best at everything I do and I don’t like letting people down. Learning to deal with your imperfections and that you’re not as amazing as you think you are is really important. You’re going to fail more often than you’re going to succeed, so it’s useful to see that not as failure but just the outcome that wasn’t desired. Take something out of it and move on.

Did cancer feel like a failure? Of your youth? Or your manliness?

I did and I do still feel like I’m flawed, from a human specimen point of view. Without medical science I would have died, so I often wonder if I’m not programmed to live a full life. Many people feel that way, but it comes into focus when you’ve stared down the barrel of a gun.

You’re going to fail more often than you’re going to succeed, so it’s useful to see that not as failure but just the outcome that wasn’t desired. Take something out of it and move on.

As a result, are you more comfortable with the idea of your own mortality?

No! I hate the idea of not being around. It’s really shit. I struggle sometimes because, from a Darwinist perspective, the world is getting too crowded, we’re living longer, there are fewer resources… basically the law of natural selection says some people should die. And then I think, “shit, I’m one of those people!” I realise perhaps I shouldn’t be here, but I want to be here.

You read about people with life-threatening illnesses who talk about epiphanies and how they’ve turned their lives around. I didn’t really change much afterwards because I feel like I was ok as a human before. Should I now be vegan? Should I give up booze? Stop taking risks? No, it’s who I am. It doesn’t make me a bad person. I’m doing alright.

How do you feel about having ‘survivor’ as part of your identity? Do you embrace it?

For a long time I didn’t. A couple of years ago a counsellor asked me had I ever said well done to myself. And I was like, “Why would I do that?” It made me realise I was still fighting. But I am alive and I did beat cancer. I’d never given myself credit for coming out the other side. I didn’t have a Destiny’s Child moment (although that should be my entry music if I ever box again) but I did survive.

Do you now feel proud?

Yes, quietly, for myself. I don’t really feel like [being a survivor] is what defines me but it is how I’m defined by other people. At work I can’t get away from the fact that I have no bollocks – I do press, I talk about it a lot, I’m the go-to testicles guy in the office. I’m comfortable with that but it doesn’t exactly reflect who I am as a person. Sometimes I’d like not to be Benny No-Nuts, I’d just like to be Ben. But it’s a fact of what I do, and I accept that.

You’re not obliged to…

I’ll always talk to others because I’m passionate about it.

Masculinity isn’t defined by the size of your package. It’s defined by how you take responsibility for yourself and those around you; how you deal with your own health and look after yourself. Because if you don’t look after yourself you can’t look after anyone else.

How has your own sense of masculinity changed from when you were 25 and cancer-free to now, when you’re 37 and cancer-free?

Everything I’ve gone on to do and achieve since getting cancer has shown that old cliché to be true: you don’t need balls to have balls. Masculinity isn’t defined by the size of your package. It’s defined by how you take responsibility for yourself and those around you; how you deal with your own health and look after yourself. Because if you don’t look after yourself you can’t look after anyone else. There’s a big shift that needs to take place in how we talk about masculinity. It’s not about the strong, silent provider who doesn’t talk about or deal with anything. Being alive is the first major thing you can do to be there for people and be masculine. Being dead isn’t a very cool way to look after anyone. Try not to get caught up in the stigmas and stereotypes that exist in the world today.

Is that getting easier? Or is there still a fight to be fought?

We’re not there, but the tide is turning. There’s a lot of good work going on to change the conversation.

So what’s your advice for other men?

Check your testicles, ideally just after you’ve got out of the bath or shower so your scrotum is nice and loose and hanging low. No more often than once a month as you won’t notice a change. Get to know them and, as soon as you notice a change, get to the doctor. Don’t think the worst! I was very unusual and very unlucky. In most people it’s nothing that can’t be cured easily. Check out the simple guide on how to check yourself.

How can guys help each other with that?

When I told my mates the first time around, my oldest friend said he’d recently had a lump that turned out to be fine. But he never talked about it. If he had done I might have been more educated about what to look out for. By sharing these experiences and what’s happened to us in terms of our health – both physically and mentally – we can help each other. Tell your mates. They can help you through it or you can help them prevent something in the future.

Find out more about the Movember Foundation’s programmes fighting testicular cancer.

Related issues

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