December 19, 2014
Edit Module

Man-to-Man

Patrick Ryan survived the cancer that no guy wants to discuss. And he’s not afraid to talk about it.

Photo by Lisa Helfert

It’s nearly 6 a.m. and Patrick Ryan is pumped.

“I like to end my workouts with a compound exercise that strengthens several muscle groups all at once,” he says, picking up a weight bar with 185 pounds and blasting through several reps of a barbell row, pulling the bar toward his chest in a rowing motion.  

Most folks at this hour are fumbling around their kitchens in search of coffee, if they are even upright. But Ryan and his wife, Janine, have been at the gym since 5. This is their routine, seven days a week.

It shows. Standing 6 feet 2 inches, Ryan can bench-press 275 pounds and has the physique of a bouncer. By day, he works as a clinical psychologist at the Duffy Counseling Center in McLean, a family-owned practice specializing in substance abuse, mood disorders and depression, which he runs with his older brother, Matthew, and sister, Katharine (all three have master’s degrees in clinical psychology). He appears to be the personification of health—not the guy you would expect to wake up one morning and face a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness.

But that’s what happened in 2012, when a gnawing pain in his groin turned out to be testicular cancer. He was 27.

Ryan says he first noticed the pain while doing squats at the gym. His primary physician suspected a hernia, but ordered an ultrasound just to be safe, given that Ryan’s father (now a retired ER doctor) had been diagnosed with testicular cancer around the same age.

Still, Ryan was shocked when the ultrasound revealed a stage 1 seminoma on his left testicle. He was scheduled for an orchiectomy the next day at Virginia Hospital Center.

Suddenly, he felt vulnerable. As he was prepped for surgery, the engagement ring he had recently bought for Janine (then his girlfriend) sat in a drawer, its power seeming to dissipate as he struggled to look her in the eye. “You want to make sure everything down there works,” he remembers.

After the tumor was removed, Ryan was referred to medical oncologist John Feigert to discuss follow-up treatment options, including chemotherapy or radiation. The decision was important, Feigert explained, because certain treatments can affect fertility.

Ryan received a single dose of carboplatin chemotherapy at the end of June 2012, and took the rest of the summer off from work and exercise. By then, he knew the statistics. He knew that testicular cancer is the most common form of cancer in men between the ages of 15 and 35. He knew that his chances of making a full recovery (just as his father had) were good.

He also knew that while the overall survival rate for testicular cancer exceeds 90 percent, early detection is important. With late-stage cancers that have spread, the survival rate drops below 75 percent, according to the American Cancer Society.

And therein lay a problem, not for him, but for others like him: Most guys in their teens and 20s fancy themselves bulletproof. And they avoid going to the doctor, even when unusual symptoms arise.

“We are dealing with a young patient population,” Ryan’s surgeon, urologist Andrew Joel, said later in a hospital newsletter article. “They feel invincible and tend to ignore their symptoms.”

Ryan began to wonder if he could change that mind-set.

Determined to spark public discussion around what society considers an awkward topic, he decided that humor was the best plan of attack. He asked his sister to design a T-shirt featuring the slogan, “Get ‘Em Checked,” along with a logo modeled after his favorite superhero, Batman.

Next, they created a Facebook page and a Twitter account, and began tweeting the slogan into the social mediasphere, looping in professional athletes by including links to the athletes’ Twitter handles. (One of the sports stars was Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond, who later met with Ryan and donned one of the shirts for a photo-op.)

A mixed-martial arts fan, Ryan also reached out to Ultimate MMA magazine, whose editor suggested that he sell the shirts online and donate the proceeds. Since then, Ryan has raised $1,000 for Virginia Hospital Center’s oncology department through T-shirt sales and charity races. It’s not exactly a superhuman amount, he concedes, although he hopes to raise more in the future.

Even more important is his mission to raise awareness of the disease. Now cancer free, he doesn’t mind talking about a subject that makes some people uncomfortable. Not when it’s a matter of life and death—or, at the very least, a young man’s chances of one day becoming a father.

“Sometimes I’ll tell someone I’m a testicular cancer survivor and they’ll look at me with a bit of shock,” he says. “I always let them know everything still works, and I’ve got a wife who’s happy.”

He and Janine are looking forward to starting a family one day.

Kevin Craft is a writer in Arlington. For more information on the “Get ‘Em Checked” campaign, visit www.duffycounseling.com/the-movement/ or http://getemchecked.blogspot.com/.