Testicular Cancer Grad- Justin Birckbichler
Name: Justin Birckbichler
Age at Enrollment: 25
Major: Stage IIB Nonseminoma Testicular Cancer
What were the primary symptoms you experienced prior to diagnosis? I found a lump while doing a routine self-exam in the shower in early October 2016.
Prior to my diagnosis, I didn’t make health a priority. I had really no major health events, and perhaps my uneventful history caused me to be less worried when I first felt a lump. Because there was no "pain" associated with the lump (like many testicular cancer survivors mention), I thought it was nothing. To be perfectly honest, I felt 100% healthy and fine. Just a few weeks prior, I had completed a Spartan Sprint and was jogging in the mornings before school. I had no fatigue, headaches, swelling, fever, or anything that indicated I was sick.
What symptom(s) lead you to go to the doctor? After I found my lump, I called a doctor a few days later. My GP, urologist, and oncologist all stressed how important calling early and not putting it off was in a successful course of treatment.
Courses Completed: Orchiectomy, BEP chemo.
An ultrasound result caused my doctor to suspect cancer (this would be confirmed after surgery). The testicle was removed at the end of the month, but a CT scan revealed that the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes (officially my diagnosis/staging was Stage IIB nonseminoma testicular cancer), so I needed BEP chemo. I started 21 treatments (5 days in a row, 2 days off, 1 day on, six days off, 1 day on, rinse repeat for three cycles) in late November 2016 and concluded at the end of January 2017. A scan in March showed that I was in remission, and I remain in remission as of December 2017.
What was your hardest moment (or moments) and how did you you get through it/them? Physically, the hardest part of the journey was a five day span of constant vomiting. I had gotten so close to the end of my chemo regimen (19 of 21 treatments) and just totally lost my lunch - literally. I haven’t been back to Olive Garden since.
Emotionally, survivorship is significantly harder than dealing with active treatment. After months of grappling with processing what had happened in such an abrupt timeframe, I finally admitted to my doctor that I was experiencing depression and asked for antidepressants. After a few adjustments and battles with insurance, I found the right dosage and feel so much better.
What advice would you like to give? Carpe Scrotiem! Don’t be afraid to check yourself and talk about your ‘boys’ with your boys!
On a serious note, men need to start by talking openly about their health. I want to live in a world where we can freely talk about testicular self-exams. I want conversation to be open about all health issues, but I’m especially passionate about men’s health. Not talking about it can be a potentially life-threatening mistake. Keeping each other accountable for performing regular self-checks is also critical. Without honest conversations, this accountability is impossible.
Have you created any meaning out of this experience? If so, what was it/how did you do it? Getting cancer in and of itself was a blessing in disguise. Before cancer, I was like a dog chasing a ball. I buried myself in random education projects, instead of finding what was meaningful to me. I'm making better use of my time now. I don't have a perfect balance, but I'm making sure I enjoy the life I do have. My main purpose and passion is my blog A Ballsy Sense Of Tumor. I want to be a catalyst to start talking about testicles in everyday conversation. I want men thinking of me and checking themselves (hopefully not at the same time, but whatever works).
I write and am an advocate for men’s health. One of my goals is for ABSOT to help others who have been diagnosed with testicular cancer to find the resource I wish I had when I first started. I couldn’t find a patient-friendly resource that detailed the entire journey (from discovery to the struggles of survivorship) and was written from a twenty-something’s perspective. I’m hoping to fill that void and am happy when I hear others have found it helpful.
While that’s one of the missions of ABSOT, the main goal is to open up lines of dialogue about testicular cancer and men’s health in general. Testicular cancer is not talked about enough in society. My hopes are that sharing my story from beginning to end with an open attitude will stimulate more open discussion and bring a larger focus to men’s health in general. Knowing someone who is going through cancer can help make it more real to men who might not otherwise be concerned about their own health. I put my face where their balls are (which is a somewhat awkward turn of phrase).
Why do you choose to raise awareness? Men being resistant and guarded about about talking their health is a driving force behind why I do ABSOT. Society has such skewed visions of men talking about their health - we’re supposed to be seen as strong and able to heal ourselves. According to a 2016 study by the Cleveland Clinic, only three in five men actually go to their annual physical, and just over 40 percent go to the doctor only when they have a serious medical condition. 53% of all the men surveyed reported that their health just isn’t something they talk about, and 19 percent admitted they will only go to the doctor to stop nagging from their significant other, a point I can usually understand.
The title, A Ballsy Sense of Tumor, is purposefully chosen to convey that the blog is about testicular cancer and that I talk about it in as positively and with as much humor as you can use when discussing cancer. While cancer is no laughing matter, my method is to approach it with humor, awareness, and positivity. Keeping an upbeat demeanor was very important in my approach because I was feeling physically like crap, but I needed to stay internally positive. My main nurse, Jenn, even noted it in a card she gave me at the end of chemo: “You were handed a tough regimen but you were always positive and even when vomiting you were laughing and making a joke.”
Testicular cancer, and the associated terms such as balls, sack, nuts, etc etc, lend themselves nicely to puns and humor. It’d be a crime to not utilize it. Humor is a natural connector for people. In the words of Mary Poppins, it helps the medicine go down. Keeping it positive and light, while underscoring the seriousness, make conversation easier to swallow and more apt to be an actual conversation instead of a lecture.
In summary, it’s sometimes hard to have such a stiff conversation, and it’s certainly not always a ball, but you would be a nut to not sack it up and do it. Don’t get teste about it.