Richard Herring: ‘If you’re going to lose a ball, losing a testicle is better than losing an eyeball’
The comedian was terrified that he’d die of testicular cancer, but at least getting it provided him with lots of material, he tells Damian Whitworth
11 Oct 2022 00:01:00
When Richard Herring first began worrying that there might be something wrong with one of his testicles, he immediately adopted a classic strategy that many men may recognise. The ball was heavier, felt like it was getting larger and was possibly a bit harder than he remembered. So the comedian decided to tell nobody about his fears, certainly not his wife. The situation was scary. “The kind of scary where you decide not to look into it, in case you find out something you don’t want to,” Herring writes in his new memoir.
Eventually, he googled his symptoms and satisfied himself that there was nothing to worry about. Now, he says, he can’t imagine what terms he put into the search engine because when he tries to replicate the search it only ever comes up with clear advice to see your GP.
After much procrastination, including a miserable few days on a film location for an acting role where he spent sleepless nights worrying about his testicle, he went to see his doctor. It was early 2021 and the fact that they offered him an appointment within 36 hours, despite the raging pandemic, alarmed him. This must be serious, he thought. However, the young GP told him there was nothing to worry about at all, before sending him for a scan just to make sure. Even when the woman doing the scan said, “There is something there,” the confidence of the GP and his willingness to be in denial meant that he still didn’t think there was much to worry about.
When the GP called, his voice was a little shaky as he reported that the scan had shown a 6cm growth, and blurted out: “Oh gosh, it’s pretty big.”
“He was more upset than I was,” recalls Herring, when we meet in London. “And just hearing his voice wobbling and him not saying the word cancer, which he had been happy to say when he didn’t think I had cancer, I suddenly thought, ‘Oh shit!’ ”
Herring, who was one half of the Lee and Herring 1990s TV comedy double act with Stewart Lee and is now a stand-up and prolific podcaster, blogger and comedy writer, approached testicular cancer with his usual eagle eye for comedic moments. Part of him was strangely thrilled that something was wrong because he thought it would provide new material for a show at the Edinburgh Fringe. He has turned his experience into a book and his sitcom, Relativity, which is running on Radio 4, features a character whose experiences of an anomaly in his scrotum are heavily based on his own.
In 2021 he was worried that he was heading for an “ironic death”, given that he once created an entire show about penises, called Talking Cock. When he came off the phone with the doctor he cried in a way he never had before. The previous year a close male friend had died of cancer, leaving behind a son, and he thought about the effect his death would have on his wife, Catie Wilkins, who is also a comedian, and their children, Phoebe, then almost six, and Ernie, three. “[My friend’s] circumstances were so similar and I’d known him for so long, that was where my mind went. Having a young family, my immediate fear was much more about them than about myself.”
He worried that his son would have no memory of him and that his daughter would only have a vague recall of what he was like. Would it be better if he died quickly so that the kids would have no memory of him and it would hurt them less, he wondered.
Then his thoughts turned to what he describes now, with a wry smile, as “that slightly self-obsessed thing about who will come to take my place”. He imagined his wife making a new life with a mustachioed chancer in cowboy boots who smelt of Herring’s cherished single-malt whisky. “Look, she could do a lot better. She made the correct decision of marrying a man 13 years older than her. She’s got a good chance of getting a second go,” he says.
The doctors decided that whatever had taken over his right testicle was so large that the whole testicle would have to be removed. Then they would test to see if it was cancerous. Herring quickly concluded he would not mourn the loss of one of his balls. He did not care about his testicles; at least not as much as he cared about living.
His friend had had an eyeball removed during his illness. “If you’re going to lose a ball, this ball is better than an eyeball,” he says. He wanted to ask the doctor if he could keep the diseased testicle to use on the Channel 4 quiz show, Taskmaster, but for once he was lost for words.
The operation went smoothly and Herring, who has always been fascinated by death, says he loved the experience of receiving a general anaesthetic: “Philosophically interesting that you’re gone and then brought back again. It was so relaxing just to slip away.”
The growth was found to be cancerous but it had not spread. A precautionary shot of chemotherapy was prescribed to reduce the chance of the cancer returning.
About one in every 215 men in the UK will get testicular cancer, which mostly affects those aged between 15 and 49. Herring was 53 at the time he was diagnosed. In 98 per cent of such cases a patient will survive for five years or more, a statistic that Herring wished the doctor had told him at the very beginning.
Usually, treatment involves removal of the testicle. “You will certainly know people that it’s happened to, but it’s a shame that people don’t talk about it,” he says. “It is a personal thing, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of obviously.”
Many men have a prosthetic testicle fitted. Herring, to the surprise of his doctor, decided that it would be “ridiculous” if he did so. He was not single and dating, and even if he was he doesn’t believe anyone would recoil from a man with one bollock. “Once anyone’s got to the point where they’ve noticed, you’re already in pretty deep with whoever that is. I don’t think anyone is going to say, ‘Oh my God, I can only be with someone with two balls.’ It’s all down to the way you feel about yourself and your own insecurities.” His view of his own masculinity had nothing to do with how many testicles he had. “I completely understand that people choose a different route than I did.”
There are some advantages to having only one testicle, Herring contends. Having a less tightly packed lunchbox makes it more comfortable down there, especially when exercising.
Herring, one of the early adopters of podcasting, has exploited his cancer on his show, in which he interviews comedians and celebrities, as well as in his daily blog, the book and Radio 4 series.
“The way I’ve always coped with unpleasant things is to find the humour,” he says. “I was even genuinely slightly disappointed, when I thought I didn’t have testicular cancer, that I wouldn’t be able to do a show about testicular cancer. That’s the comedian’s mindset.”
For his online ventriloquism show he had a puppet made that looked like a swollen testicle and called it Right Bollock. The puppet has the vengeful madness of Captain Ahab and is bent on destroying Herring. “There’s a bit of Stewart in Right Bollock,” Herring says. He chuckles. “I don’t know if he watches it.” There were some tensions between him and Lee before they split as comedy partners years ago. In his routines Herring has sometimes played up his own supposed bitterness about Lee’s subsequent stand-up success, but Lee has appeared on his podcast.
In his book he suggests to his readers that if someone offered them two years’ work in exchange for a bodily organ of their choice, “I bet those of you with two bollocks would probably plump to lose one of them.” Does he really think that’s a good trade? “I think so. I mean, if someone came and offered me two years’ work for the other one, I think I would think quite long and hard about it.”
His illness was more challenging for Wilkins than him. “It was hard for her because she was having to hide away her own worries in order to get through everything. It’s much tougher on the partner in these cases.” According to his logic, while both the patient and the partner worry about the future, ultimately only the partner has to deal with the worst-case scenario. “If it goes wrong, then your problems are over.”
Herring says he felt a little bit of a fraud. He never had bad symptoms and undertook just one round of chemo. “I never really felt like I had cancer.” Crotch rot, though, was sore and tedious and required Wilkins to apply unguent while he lifted his legs above his head.
The whole experience has made him more acutely aware of his mortality. “It was always something I thought about a lot, but it’s made me realise that when you get to 55, that’s not too far away from potential ends.” He worries less about being acknowledged for his work and is spending more time with his family.
By using his platforms to raise awareness of the need to check testicles for lumps, bumps or changes in size, he has encouraged three or four people to go to the doctor. “And as a result they have had a testicle removed. I don’t know if that’s a positive or negative, but I guess it’s a positive.”
He has become “paranoid about it coming back or coming back somewhere else. But the truth is it’s very rare for it to come back.” Nevertheless, he had a scare when at the beginning of this year he discovered a lump on his remaining testicle. A scan showed that this time it was a harmless cyst.
He has a couple of tips. One, keep checking yourself “anywhere you can feel and if you find anything untoward get a check-up”. And two, try to find humour wherever you can, even when things seem dark. “If you want to treat everything massively seriously, I think you can, but comedy is that moment of release and it just gives you power over a situation.”
Can I Have My Ball Back: A Memoir of Masculinity, Mortality and My Right Testicle Can I Have My Ball Back: A Memoir of Masculinity, Mortality and My Right Testicle is published by Sphere on October 20 at £20. Richard Herring will be talking about his book at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on October 15