Six-footers shouldn’t start panicking when they read today’s news story that being taller could increase the risk of testicular cancer. Being tall doesn’t directly cause cancer. It’s just one of many physical traits that are linked to a person’s risk, in the same way that fair-skinned people have a higher risk of skin cancer.
The story comes from a new paper by researchers from Yale University and the National Institutes of Health, who looked at all the existing studies on height and testicular cancer. They ended up combining the results of 13 studies, all of which focused on adult men.
They found that for every extra five centimetres (or two inches) increase in height, a man’s risk of testicular cancer goes up by around 13 per cent. To put that into perspective, the average man’s lifetime risk of testicular cancer is 1 in 210 – this is pretty small. If that goes up by 13 per cent, the risk becomes 1 in 186.
Put it another way: if you took 10,000 men in the UK, around 48 of them would develop testicular cancer at some point in their lives. If all of them were 2 inches taller, then around 6 more of them would do so.
So even for men exceeding the average height of British men (5ft 9ins) the risk would remain relatively low.
The connection is nothing new; previous studies have also shown a link between height and the risk of testicular cancer.
Why is height important?
It may seem odd to look at the link between height and cancer in the first place. After all, there’s not much that people can do about their height.
But if taller people do have a higher risk of a certain cancer, that might tell you something about the underlying biology behind that disease. Being tall doesn’t directly affect the risk of testicular cancer, but something else that is linked to height might do.
For the moment, we don’t know exactly what that might be, but the researchers considered several possibilities. Taller men might have larger testicles, which might affect their risk of testicular cancer. However, a Scandinavian study found that newborn Finnish babies have larger testes than Danish ones, even though Denmark has higher rates of testicular cancer than Finland.
Previous studies have suggested that taller people have higher levels of certain hormones like IGF-1, or might be more likely to have undescended testicles. Both of these have been linked to testicular cancer, but their link to height isn’t clear. Some studies have suggested that eating lots of calories, fat or dairy products during childhood could affect both height and testicular cancer risk but again, the evidence for this isn’t consistent.
Whatever the true explanation, there is clearly something interesting about height. Other studies have found links between being tall and other types of cancer, such as breast, myeloma, prostate and thyroid.
What does this mean?
As we said before, tall men shouldn’t panic. Height is only a minor risk factor for testicular cancer. Family history, inherited faulty genes, previous medical conditions, ethnic background and age all play a more significant role in affecting a man’s risk.
It is important for all men to check their testicles (and you can find some tips for doing this here) because this is a disease that can affect men of any height or background.
At 6ft 1ins, former Welsh international football striker John Hartson this year overcame testicular cancer after it spread to his brain. And despite his small stature, jockey Bob Champion was also affected – although he too fought back to a full recovery when he rode to victory in the Grand National just over a year after he was diagnosed.
Testicular cancer – a research success
Testicular cancer is relatively rare. Fewer than 2000 cases are diagnosed each year in the UK, which accounts for just over one per cent of all male cancers.
If there were a league table showing which cancers had the best outcomes then testicular would be right up there at the top. Not only is it a relatively rare form of the disease it has one of the best cure rates for all cancers.
The most recent figures show that fewer than 2000 cases are diagnosed each year in the UK accounting for just over one per cent of all male cancers.
What’s more, 98 per cent of men diagnosed with the disease survive for at least 10 years. Even after the cancer has spread, patients can still be successfully treated.
But despite this good news, men need to be aware of any changes to their testicles, get a feel for what is normal, and see a GP if they notice any changes. This is particularly important for young men as, unusually, testicular cancer is more common in people aged 25-35.
“It’s probably nothing”, “I’m too busy” or “there’s no way I’m dropping my pants at the docs” (seriously they’ve seen it all before and worse) are all phrases that are only too easy to use to stop us getting ourselves checked. Remember the chances are any symptoms won’t be cancer. But testicular cancer is far easier to treat if it’s caught early. So why not show some “ball skills” and if you’re worried about anything down there, get yourself to your doctor.
Lerro, C., McGlynn, K., & Cook, M. (2010). A systematic review and meta-analysis of the relationship between body size and testicular cancer British Journal of Cancer, 103 (9), 1467-1474 DOI: 10.1038/sj.bjc.6605934