By: Cailynn Klingbeil
For Tyler Torpe, a general foreman for Modern Niagara working on the HVAC systems at the new Calgary Cancer Centre, the project was like no other he’s worked on in his two decades in construction.
Torpe was one of 14,000 people who helped build the $1.4-billion facility over the past five years, who collectively put in nearly eight million hours to construct one of the largest cancer centres in the world. With the construction phase complete, Alberta Health Services is preparing the inside of the facility for patients, with an expected opening in 2024.
“Deep down, it had a whole new meaning to me to build that place,” Torpe says. That’s because a few months before he began work on the construction of the Calgary Cancer Centre, in April 2018, he heard the words nearly 60 Albertans hear every day: “You have cancer.”
It all started when Torpe was working on a different job site in January 2018 — at Calgary’s new bus barn storage facility — when he bent down and felt a sudden and very warm sensation in his testicle. “I’ve never felt that feeling before,” and he thought, “I’ll see if it passes.”
He told a few co-workers what he was feeling: like his testicle was being clamped, causing shooting pains. “We better take you to the hospital,” they said.
But Torpe declined. The pain had mellowed out and, after a few hours, it was gone.
Discomfort and inflammation came back when he returned home that night, but Torpe tried to dismiss it, telling himself again and again, “It’ll pass.”
Torpe, then age 32, repeated that mantra for the next four months as the pain came and went. Finally, he decided to book an appointment with his family doctor. Things happened quickly after that. The doctor recommended an ultrasound. The ultrasound imaging showed masses, and surgery to remove the testicle was scheduled for the next day. Shortly after that, once testing was complete, Torpe discovered he had testicular cancer.
“Nobody really knew it was cancer until it was out and they could test the mass, but they were all pretty adamant it had to get out of my body,” Torpe says.
While testicular cancer is rare, with an estimated 2,700 Albertans diagnosed this year alone, it’s the most common cancer in young men aged 15 to 35. It is considered highly curable, especially when it is detected early. But, just as Torpe did, many men wait to see a doctor after they notice changes to their testicles, discovered by chance or during a self-examination.
“My biggest mistake was that, for four months, I said, ‘It’ll pass, it’ll pass,’” Torpe says. “I think a lot of guys, and a lot of people in general, just don’t want to hear the bad news and procrastinate.”
The most common symptoms of testicular cancer are a lump or swelling in the scrotum (that may or may not be painful), a heavy feeling in the scrotum and a dull pain or feeling of pressure in the lower belly or groin. On average, men wait for about five months before saying anything to a health-care professional, according to the Urology Care Foundation.
While these symptoms may not end up being cancer, men are still encouraged to go to their doctor right away. That’s because, if they are symptoms of cancer, swift treatment provides the best chance for a cure.
Treatment for testicular cancer varies depending on the type and stage of cancer. Some men need surgery to remove the testicle, while others may require chemotherapy or radiation therapy if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
Torpe wishes he hadn’t waited for months before seeing a doctor back in 2018. He’s sharing his story in hopes others will be more proactive if they notice something amiss. Like many people, he was unaware testicular cancer affects a young and healthy population — making an open discussion of the disease all the more important.
“Don’t wait. It’s not a good idea at all,” Torpe says. “When I was going through the initial pain of it, I could feel lumps and distortion on the testicle. But I kept thinking, ‘It’ll go away.’ Don’t wait. Go in and get checked up.”
After Torpe’s surgery to remove the cancer, he returned to work within days. It all happened so fast, he says, there wasn’t much of a chance to process what had happened.
Next, he started a surveillance program to monitor the cancer, involving CT scans, bloodwork and physicals. A few months later, in the fall of 2018, he wrapped up his work at the bus barn and started work on the new Calgary Cancer Centre. The company Torpe works for, Modern Niagara, was the centre’s mechanical contractor, working under PCL Construction.
For Torpe, building the new cancer centre so soon after his own diagnosis gave him an opportunity to try and process his own experience with cancer. He thought about the future patients inside the building and the cancer journeys they will face.
“As you’re building a place like that, it puts a new perspective on what happened,” he says. “I’m grateful for the fact that it was cancer somewhere in my body that could be removed quite easily.”
Torpe considers the hardest part of his whole experience the cancer surveillance program. It involved five years of regular testing to confirm the cancer had not returned. He recently finished the five-year program and is considered cancer-free.
“The tests are very important for early detection, but it’s also just a constant reminder. You’ve got to go back for your CT, your bloodwork and your X-ray — it brings the experience back when you want to move on. But, at the same point, you’ve got to realize that it’s really important to do those checkups,” he says.
He’s breaking the stigma and opening up about his experience with testicular cancer even though it can feel uncomfortable, especially in the male-dominated construction industry he works in, and it can feel awkward for a person like Torpe who doesn’t like any spotlight on him.
“But that potential of helping others is why I’m sharing,” he says.
He’s also looking to offer his support in other ways. Torpe had planned to participate in the 2022 Enbridge Tour Alberta for Cancer with Modern Niagara and PCL’s team, called Building Hope, and raise funds for the Alberta Cancer Foundation. But a work project in B.C. meant he couldn’t attend. He hopes to join the ride in the future.
“I want to help in any way I can,” he says. “I’m passing the information on and hoping it sits somewhere, that somebody can grab a chunk of it or use it to their advantage, or just see that I made the mistake of waiting that duration. The consequences could have been a lot worse for me.”
By the Numbers:
Testicular cancer is the most common cancer in men ages 15-35
Testicular cancer is considered highly curable: the five-year survival rate is 97%
It’s not uncommon for men to wait about five months before discussing their symptoms with a health-care professional
Know the Symptoms
The following are the most common symptoms of testicular cancer and should be examined by a health-care professional:
- A lump or swelling in the scrotum
- Heaviness in the scrotum
- Dull pain or pressure in the lower belly or groin