They say the mark of a good writer is the ability to spin gold out of straw: to take any topic, no matter how obscure or ridiculous, and turn it into compelling prose that people want to read.
I’m starting to feel like a pretty good writer, because I’ve penned hundreds of words about testicles every day for the past two years.
In 2014, the Sean Kimerling Testicular Cancer Foundation had an idea. They’d been successful doing the usual nonprofit stuff–a yearly fun run on Roosevelt Island, a charity golf game–but they wanted a new way to raise awareness for testicular cancer.
The foundation is named after a sportscaster who died at the age of 37 from the disease. I never knew Sean Kimerling, but his hustle was inspiring. After an internship in California, he dubbed 100 videotapes of his on-air work, packed them in a car and visited every station between Los Angeles and New York to ask for a gig.
He got one, in Texas, and eventually parlayed it into a weekend job manning the sports desk at New York’s PIX11, where he won two Emmy Awards. Unfortunately, in 2003 he went to the doctor complaining of back pain and was diagnosed with testicular cancer. It had already spread to his lungs, and he succumbed to infections shortly after.
Testicular cancer is the most common form of cancer in men under 25. But it’s also one of the most beatable.
Testicular cancer is the most common form of cancer in men under 25. But it’s also one of the most beatable. If detected early, before it spreads from the testicle to another body part, survival rate is a staggering 99%. That goes down if it metastasizes. Since there’s no real way to prevent cancer, most outreach involves catching it before it moves out from the testicles.
You don’t need to go to the doctor to do a preliminary screening for testicular cancer. What you do is reach down, put your index and middle fingers at the base of your testicles, and gently roll them, looking for any lumps or irregularities. It takes about a minute.
So the foundation’s goal was simple: get people checking themselves at least once a month.
The problem with their other initiatives is that they were yearly affairs. So they made a big impact, got some press, and then faded into memory. They wanted something that got testicular awareness in front of people day in and day out, to remind them to do that one minute check.
The winning idea was the Ball Report, a site that they pitched to me as “the Huffington Post, but for balls.”
With a topline like that, I couldn’t say no.
The winning idea was a site they pitched to me as “the Huffington Post, but for balls.” With a topline like that, I couldn’t say no.
I signed on with the foundation in early 2015. Together, we developed a business plan for the site. We quickly realized that a 100% testicle-focused site would run out of material pretty quickly, so we started brainstorming what would be under the umbrella. Testicular stories, sure, but also stories of “ballsy” behavior. Sports, as long as the ball was the focus of the piece. Ball pits. Energy balls. Balls of snakes. You get the idea.
We knew when we launched the site that “come read about testicular cancer every day” wasn’t going to generate a lot of traffic. So we had to balance the mission-centric content with other ball-related clickbait.
As I write this, I’ve created 1,073 posts for the Ball Report. We’ve had some tremendous content successes, stories that have been read hundreds of thousands of times.
When a viral story about a gang member dying after spray-painting his testicles gold started to spread, I was one of the first to debunk it and trace “his” mugshot back to another story.
I wrote a dense history of the practice of “teabagging” in video games, that ubiquitous first-person shooter taunt where you rapidly crouch over a fallen opponent’s head.
I interviewed an entrepreneur who was Kickstarting a bulletproof jockstrap inspired by a particularly brutal groin shot during a UFC fight.
The powerful thing about working on the Ball Report is that we have proof that awareness can translate into action, and that can translate into saving lives.
And it’s not all testicles, either. When I work on the site, I look outside the bag to find clickable, fun stuff that I can still tie back to the mission. After I saw an old comic book ad for Madballs, the grotesque 80s bouncing toys modeled to look like movie monsters, I put together a history of their production and marketing. I also shared my picks for the best pinball machines ever made, and profiled a Florida man who claims to have made $15 million retrieving golf balls.
Lots of medical nonprofits tout “awareness” as something that they provide. But for many diseases, “awareness” is a pretty useless metric. The powerful thing about working on the Ball Report is that we have proof that awareness can translate into action, and that can translate into saving lives. Every single post comes with a bold and unmissable sidebar advertisement, a picture of a denim-clad cowboy gripping his crotch and exhorting you to check yours. And we can track exactly how many people come to our non-profit because of our ball-related clickbait.
The thing with testicles is that they’re not easy to talk about. What’s interesting about talking to testicular cancer survivors is how open they are about their illness, even though it involves one of their body’s most private parts.
I’m not the only one out there transforming testicular cancer into creative inspiration. I’ve been lucky to profile multiple people who survived the disease and came forward about it.
Canadian artist Mathieu Francoeur struggled with his treatment, having to stay out of direct sunlight because chemotherapy weakened his immune system so badly. Confined to his garage, he produced a series of paintings that used materials from his hospital stays on the canvas. A show of the work raised money to pay for his hospital stays.
Surviving testicular cancer is a crucible–it burns away the embarrassment of talking about your testicles to the world.
I was inspired by the story of Josif Nolan, a British guy who was diagnosed at the age of 14 and had one of his testicles removed. He was seriously embarrassed and traumatized about his body for years afterwards, but bit the bullet when he was scouted by a modeling agency. Now he poses–even in the nude–for multiple global brands.
Even Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas, one of the most prominent testicular cancer cases of the last few years, wrote a song called “Fight” about his journey.
Surviving testicular cancer is a crucible–it burns away the embarrassment of talking about your testicles to the world. The people I’ve written about have come out the other side galvanized to share what they learned and help prevent other people from going through it.
I’ve been writing professionally for two decades now, for dozens of different clients. I bring my best to every job, no matter what the subject. But this is more than a job to me. It’s allowed me, without suffering from testicular cancer myself, to join a fraternity of men who are using their ordeal to help other people. Each and every one of us is looking to save somebody’s life–no matter how uncomfortable it makes people–one ball at a time.
Illustration by Shannon Wheeler.