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Patriots' Nate Solder, diagnosed with testicular cancer in '14, spreads awareness


FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots left tackle Nate Solder takes pride in his team-first approach, which means he often avoids speaking about himself. He's making an exception on this topic with the hope he might help others.

Solder was diagnosed with testicular cancer in April 2014, which was a shocking revelation to him because he felt healthy and there was no history of it in his family.

Doctors determined the cancer was restricted to one testicle and hadn't spread. They removed the testicle, and Solder went on to experience one of the most rewarding football seasons of his life. He started every game and served as quarterback Tom Brady's blindside protector in a season that culminated with a Super Bowl XLIX title.

One year after the initial diagnosis, Solder is now sharing his story. The timing feels right, as April is National Testicular Cancer Awareness month.

"I knew nothing about it. It was a complete surprise," said Solder, who turned 27 on April 12 and enters his fifth NFL season in 2015. "You Google something like that and it kind of scares you, so I was like, 'I'm not going to freak out about this.' Had I not had a routine physical, I probably wouldn't have checked it, saying, 'Oh, it's just in my head, I'm going to be fine.'"

According to the American Cancer Society, testicular cancer can develop in males of any age, including infants and elderly men. Almost half of all cases are in men between the ages of 20 and 34.

A man's lifetime chance of getting testicular cancer is about 1 in 263, and the risk of dying from the cancer is about 1 in 5,000.

The Patriots had just started their voluntary offseason program at this time last year and Solder was undergoing a standard physical exam when he mentioned he felt something around his testicle. That led the Patriots' medical staff to immediately order an ultrasound.

Things moved quickly, and three days later, Solder underwent surgery. He had to rest for two weeks, missing some time in voluntary organized team activities. That was the main part of the recovery, and after that, doctors focused on his incision and sutures so that they wouldn't be compromised during workouts. Solder returned to the field by the end of organized team activities in June.

All along, doctors reminded Solder there was no rush, with Solder describing their approach as "super cautious."

What Solder realized was that he was fortunate to have detected things early, and others aren't always so lucky. That's why he's stepping into the public eye with his story, although he wanted to make one thing clear in doing so.

He is reluctant to have things framed in the context of him overcoming cancer in a Super Bowl season, because he doesn't see it that way. His recovery was quick, and he's also sensitive to others who endure much more significant surgery and treatments than he did.

So what he hopes to accomplish is to maximize the often powerful platform that the NFL -- as well as being a Super Bowl champion -- provides to spread the word about the importance of early detection.

"I was completely healthy, I'm a professional athlete. It can happen to anybody," he said. "Make sure you get yourself checked out, especially young men, because that's who it's really targeted toward."

Some of the natural questions men might have in a situation like Solder's is whether testosterone levels will return to their prior levels, and if the ability to have children is compromised. In Solder's case, he was fortunate in both areas.

Since last April, Solder has returned to Massachusetts General Hospital every three months for a checkup, switching between CT scans and X-rays. All results have been what he's hoped for and there's optimism that will remain the case. Along the way, Solder was very impressed with the care he's received from his doctors and Patriots head athletic trainer Jim Whalen, among others.

Solder still shakes his head in amazement over that, as well as how Brady and many of his teammates were texting him when he had been in the hospital at this time last year.

"That was very powerful for me," he said.

Perhaps most powerful of all has been the role his Christian faith has played throughout the process, along with the faith and support of his wife, Lexi. Their wedding was three weeks after Solder's initial diagnosis last year.

While there is a part of him that might be a bit reluctant to share such personal information, Solder believes if it helps at least one person, it will all be worth it.

"The biggest thing is letting people know and giving them the information. And maybe giving people some courage that if they are in a situation like I was, maybe they would go and say something, and that could make a difference," he said.

"It's more common than people realize. A lot of people are either afraid to do it, or they don't think it's important enough to get it checked. It's a simple check. Six months, a year, and then it starts spreading and then you start to feel symptoms and it's a more serious situation. So that's a big thing; you can save lives with early detection."