Steve Friedman is used to hearing a few snickers when he talks to teenagers about his battle with testicular cancer.
The message is deadly serious, though, and not a story that the typical high school student likes to hear: the painful surgery, the chemotherapy that threatened to leave him infertile, the feelings of emasculation. Yet with testicular cancer striking most often in young men, Friedman believes it's an important message to tell.
"It's a very curable disease," he said. "It's all about early detection and early treatment, and that could save a lot of men's lives."
Friedman, a 37-year-old from Chevy Chase, strolled onto the auditorium stage yesterday morning at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia and asked his audience of 12th-grade boys a question: Who plays football? Several students shouted and raised their hands. Basketball? More hollers.
"You guys play through pain, right?" he said. He pointed to a student wearing a shirt that read, "Whatever it is, put some ice on it."
"If you have a pain in your testicles, you can't put ice on it. That's not going to fix it. You can't go to your coach and say, 'Wrap it,' " he said. "Lack of communication in this situation can kill you guys."
Although breast cancer is often discussed openly -- October is national Breast Cancer Awareness Month -- testicular cancer remains a largely taboo topic, despite its being the most common form of cancer for men ages 15 to 35, according to the Testicular Cancer Resource Center. The American Cancer Society estimates that nearly 9,000 cases will be diagnosed in the United States this year, and that about 360 men will die from it.
Cancer survivors, though, including such athletes as Olympic champion figure skater Scott Hamilton, former baseball player John Kruk and Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, are working to draw more attention to the cause.
Friedman's speech was organized by the Ulman Cancer Research Fund for Young Adults and Hadassah, a nonprofit Jewish women's group.
"We get the impression that as young men, we're invincible," Wilde Lake Principal Restia Whitaker told the students. "But in all of our lives, we go on and find out we're not invincible."
That realization came to Friedman when he was 27 and had never thought about cancer. Although he was studying for a master's degree in health policy, he rarely went to the doctor and had never performed a self-examination, he said.
Then one spring day in 1995, he went for a long bike ride down Rock Creek Parkway, through Capitol Hill and the Eastern Market area. When he got home, he felt a sharp pain in his groin while taking off his biking shorts. But he ignored the pain, figuring it was from hitting one too many potholes on his bike.
After a week, the pain hadn't subsided and one of his testicles had swollen to three times its normal size, he said. After two weeks, his wife urged him to go to the doctor. He finally relented and made an appointment a few weeks later.
The doctor confirmed that Friedman had cancer and told him that it was still in its early stages and had not spread. But the only solution would be to remove the testicle.
The Wilde Lake students cringed at the thought. Friedman spared few details of the surgery, which required 25 stitches in his groin, and of the effects of the chemotherapy that followed.
"It's definitely an eye-opener," student Dan Garrity said. "I'm sure it will be the discussion for the rest of the day."
The students peppered Friedman with questions throughout his presentation: Is the tumor painful, or is it just a lump, or both? Are athletes more at risk? If you get it once, can you get it again?
Friedman answered all questions, cracking jokes at times and laughing along with the teenagers. At the end, he said that he hoped the students got his message. He has remained healthy since his surgery and now has two young children.
"Can you have a normal life?" he said. "Yes. I'm living proof of it."