Marijuana, Cocaine and Testicular Cancer
A new study concerning the risk of developing testicular cancer may be a bit unsettling for some people, given the message it may send regarding illicit drug use. It appears that marijuana use is associated with an increased risk of this cancer while cocaine use is linked with reducing the risk.
Testicular cancer is relatively rare
As cancers go, testicular cancer is not common, although it is the most common cancer among American males ages 15 to 34. The National Cancer Institute has estimated that 8,590 new cases of testicular cancer will be diagnosed in the United States in 2012, and that 360 men will die of the disease.
The cancer develops in the testicles, which are responsible for the production of sperm and male sex hormones. In the majority of cases, testicular cancer begins in germ cells (testicular germ cell tumors), which are cells that produce sperm.
Testicular cancer gained some prominence more than a decade ago when world class cyclist Lance Armstrong announced he had the disease, and then he promptly went on to fight and beat the disease. Indeed, the good news about testicular cancer is that it is highly treatable, even when it has spread beyond the testicles.
Some new interest in testicular cancer has come to light given the results of a study from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Under the guidance of Victoria Cortessis, PhD, a research team evaluated the self-reported history of recreational drug use among 163 men who had testicular cancer with 292 healthy men. The study participants were matched for age, ethnicity, and race.
Here is a summary of their findings:
- Men who had ever used marijuana had nearly twice the risk of testicular germ cell tumors than men who had not used the drug. This finding was in line with previous studies.
- Analysis of the different histologic types of testicular cancer revealed that while use of marijuana was not associated with an increased risk of the seminoma type (a subtype of germ cell), the drug use was linked with a significantly higher risk of either nonseminoma or mixed germ cell tumors, which have a worse prognosis
- Men who reported using cocaine had a 46% reduced risk of the disease. This is the first time cocaine use has been associated with a reduced risk of this form of cancer.
Cortessis and her colleagues noted that research is needed to determine how marijuana might cause testicular cancer. For now, experts are uncertain about what causes testicular cancer, although they have identified some risk factors. They include:
- Cryptorchidism, or an undescended testicle. Men who have a testicle that never descends into the scrotum have a greater risk of the disease than men whose testes have descended.
- Family history of the disease
- Abnormal development of the testicle. A condition called Klinefelter's syndrome, among others, cause testicles to develop abnormally.
- Age. The disease typically affect men between the ages of 15 and 34, although it can develop at any age
- Race. White men are more likely to get testicular cancer than are black men.
- Height. At least one study has suggested that tall men are at an increased risk of the disease.
According to the study's authors, testicular cancer is becoming more common, and one possible reason may be an "increasing exposure to unrecognized environmental causes." Recreational drug use, such as marijuana, may be one of those environmental causes.
What clues do men get that they may have testicular cancer? Symptoms may include:
- Ache in the groin or abdomen
- Lump or enlargement in either testicle (the cancer usually affects only one testicle)
- Heaviness in the scrotum
- Sudden accumulation of fluid in the scrotum
- Tender or enlarged breasts
- Discomfort or pain in the scrotum or a testicle
The results of this latest epidemiological study have raised a question regarding medicinal use of marijuana and a man's greater risk of this uncommon cancer. They also will spark further investigation into the relationship between marijuana and cocaine use and a man's risk of developing testicular cancer.
Lacson JCA et al. Population-based case-control study of recreational drug use and testis cancer risk confirms an association between marijuana use and nonseminoma risk. Cancer 2012; doi: 10.1002/cncr.27554
National Cancer Institute