Lewis Lee’s scrotum has a varicocele, which people often describe as a “bag of worms.” He wishes they’d stop that.
Next to Tom Green, I count myself the main victim of Tom Green’s testicular cancer. Maybe you’ve forgotten The Tom Green Cancer Special, a 2001 MTV documentary about the talk show host’s diagnosis and surgery. Imagine an hour of ball jokes legitimized by a public health message: “Feel your balls.” Watch out for lumps, said MTV.
I was horrified to find a chowdery nebula basically made of lumps. “These guys have only been fully operational for like two years,” I thought, picturing my testicles as mad saboteurs to be voided in the tradition of HAL 9000. I was only thirteen years old, and a cold shadow fell over everything The Wonder Years had promised.
It turned out I didn’t have cancer. “You’re lucky. What you’ve got is more like a big bag of worms,” said the doctor. The word “lucky” has never recovered from this abuse. He explained: “You see, your scrotum has a varicocele. It’s filled with varicose veins.”
The doctor took a Sharpie out of a drawer and eagerly sketched a pair of overlapping, tortoise-sized ovals on the cover sheet of the exam table. On one side he drew a milquetoast circle—my right testicle, a model citizen. The left he scribbled with the frenzy Picasso might bring to an Etch-a-Sketch, all the while making frequent recourse to the ol’ bag-o-worms analogy. I eventually gathered that the bait shop swinging between my legs posed no danger. One day the heat of the blood might lower my sperm count, but we could always cut out the veins if it came to that.
When I was twenty-four, though, my doctor warned that my varicocele now canvassed enough area to hide anything wrong. He ordered a sonogram to take a look under the hood. The sonogram technician turned out to be a kindly, uncomfortable Syrian lady wearing a hijab, who probably had chosen to become a sonogram technician after asking, “Which medical trade never involves touching men?”
Her instructions were careful: once she left the room, I should strip, place one towel over my legs, rest my testicles on a second towel, and use a third towel to flip my penis up and hold it against my torso. I became a cotton sarcophagus: white from chest to foot but for my scrotum, seemingly detached, perched regally atop the ivory expanse like a dollop of caviar on fine porcelain. The phrase “family jewels” has never been more apt.
“Entering!” the lady shouted from the door. For the next half hour we waged war on silence, rambling constantly, forging camaraderie around a shared feeling that this was the most awkward situation of either of our lives. At the end she faced the screen toward me and told me to cough. The dim maze on the screen exploded with white as blood poured in and receded. Meanwhile she searched my face expectantly, wanting me to feel the same poignancy as her patients seeing their infants for the first time. I decided a scrotal sonogram is like an advanced trailer for the pre-natal sonogram…or maybe like reading the book before you see the movie.
However, I’m not writing this just to get cheap laughs. I’m writing in the hope that someone with an undiagnosed varicocele will read it and realize nothing is wrong with his testicles after all. I’d also like to suggest two changes in how society manages this tiny corner of the human condition.
First, high schools should tell guys about varicoceles. One in seven men has a varicocele, which typically develops between the ages of 15 and 25. How could the sex-ed curriculum omit such a widespread and terrifying irregularity? Puberty is hard enough without cancer scares.
Second, the medical textbooks should stop likening the varicocele to a bag of worms. On practical grounds, few people besides the competitors in The Bassmaster Classic know how a bag of worms feels. Google “bag of worms.” The results all pertain to varicoceles. There is a greater chance a man will feel a bag of worms and think “this feels like my left nut” than there is that “bag of worms” will speak to his tactile memory.
On linguistic grounds, “bag of worms” is a travesty. It’s disgusting–a metaphor miraculously viler than a scrotum full of varicose veins. What if a tumor were “big as a shrunken head” instead of a grapefruit? In place of “bag of worms,” I recommend “bag of Twizzlers.” Everyone knows what Twizzlers are, and 5% of Americans sorta like them.
Maybe what’s worst is that the imagery slanders the varicocele’s very character. Worms connote shame and death—Isaiah 66:24; “And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die.” But what better symbolizes manly vitality than a storm sewer of hot, salty, American blood pumped straight to the balls? I bet Kid Rock has a varicocele. I bet Harley Davidson would sponsor it.
“Varicoceles embody a lusty joie de vivre that too often eludes today’s digital businessman.” –GQ Magazine (in my dreams)
All in all, though, I could have it worse. According to Wikipedia, “One non-malignant cause of a secondary varicocele is the so-called ‘Nutcracker syndrome.’” That’s a whole other can of