Clinical Review

Testicular Cancer: Diagnosis and Treatment

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The sensitivity and specificity of CT scans for detection of nodal metastases can vary significantly based on the cutoff. For example, in a series of 70 patients using a cutoff of 10 mm, the sensitivity and specificity of CT scans for patients undergoing retroperitoneal lymph node dissection were 37% and 100%, respectively.10 In the same study, a cutoff of 4 mm increased the sensitivity to 93% and decreased the specificity to 58%. The current general consensus for this cutoff value is 8 to 10 mm measured in the short axis in the transverse (axial) plane.

Approximately 20% of men with clinical stage I testicular cancer (ie, those with non-enlarged retroperitoneal lymph nodes) who do not undergo any adjuvant therapy will have disease relapse in the retroperitoneum, suggesting that they had occult micrometastases that were missed on the initial CT scans.11,12

MRI/Radionuclide Bone Scan/PET Scan

Abdominal or pelvic MRI, whole-body radionuclide bone scan, and positron emission tomography (PET) scans are almost never needed as part of the initial staging workup for testicular cancers due to several limitations, including a high false-negative rate, specifically for the PET scans, and lack of any additional value compared with CT and testicular ultrasound alone.9,13,14 If necessary, these should only be ordered after a multidisciplinary oncology consultation to prevent unnecessary delays in treatment, inappropriate changes to treatment, and unnecessary increases in cost of care.

Tumor Markers, Biopsy, and Staging

What is the role of tumor markers in the management of testicular cancers?

Serum AFP, beta-hCG, and LDH have a well-established role as tumor markers in testicular cancer. The alpha subunit of hCG is shared between multiple pituitary hormones and hence does not serve as a specific marker for testicular cancer. Serum levels of AFP and/or beta-hCG are elevated in approximately 80% percent of men with NSGCTs, even in absence of metastatic spread. On the other hand, serum beta-hCG is elevated in less than 20% and AFP is not elevated in pure seminomas.3

Tumor markers by themselves are not sufficiently sensitive or specific for the diagnosis of testicular cancer, in general, or to differentiate among its subtypes. Despite this limitation, marked elevations in these markers are rarely due to causes other than germ cell tumor. For example, serum beta-hCG concentrations greater than 10,000 mIU/mL occur only in germ cell tumors, trophoblastic differentiation of a primary lung or gastric cancer, gestational trophoblastic disease, or pregnancy. Serum AFP concentrations greater than 10,000 ng/mL occur almost exclusively in germ cell tumors and hepatocellular carcinoma.15

The pattern of marker elevation may play an important role in management of testicular cancer patients. For example, in our practice, several patients have had discordant serum tumor markers and pathology results (eg, elevated AFP with pure seminoma on orchiectomy). One of these patients was treated with adjuvant retroperitoneal lymph node dissection, which confirmed that he had a NSGCT with a seminoma, choriocarcinoma, and teratoma on pathology evaluation of retroperitoneal lymph nodes.

Serum tumor markers have 2 additional critical roles—(1) in the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC)/Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) staging16 and International Germ Cell Cancer Collaboration Group (IGCCCG) risk stratification of testicular cancer,17 and (2) in post-treatment disease monitoring.

Is a testicular biopsy necessary for diagnosis?

A testicular biopsy is almost never pursued to confirm the diagnosis of testicular cancer. There is a concern that percutaneous testicular biopsy, which is associated with scrotal skin violation, can adversely affect outcomes due to tumor seeding of scrotal sac or metastatic spread into the inguinal nodes via scrotal skin lymphatics.

Tissue diagnosis is made by radical orchiectomy in a majority of cases. Rarely in our practice, we obtain a biopsy of metastatic lesion for a tissue diagnosis. This is only done in cases where chemotherapy must be started urgently to prevent worsening of complications from metastatic spread. This decision should be made only after a multidisciplinary consultation with urologic and medical oncology teams.

How is testicular cancer staged?

Both seminomatous and nonseminomatous germ cell tumors of the testis are staged using the AJCC/UICC staging system, which incorporates assessments of the primary tumor (T), lymph nodes (N), and distant metastases (M) and serum tumor marker values (S). Details of this staging system are beyond the scope of this review and further information can be obtained through the AJCC website ( This TNMS staging enables a prognostic assessment and helps with the therapeutic approach.

For patients with advanced germ cell tumors, a risk group classification developed by the IGCCCG is used to classify patients into good-risk, intermediate-risk, and poor-risk category (Table 2). This classification has been extensively validated for the past 2 decades, provides important prognostic information, and helps inform therapy decisions.

IGCCCG Risk Stratification of Germ Cell Tumors

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