Wednesday, July 12, 2017

PCL9: No Time for Excuses

Self-exams of testicles save lives. Period. End of story. Do not pass Go; do not collect $200. (Although if you skip doing the exams, you’ll wish you had collected that $200. Cancer is crazy expensive.) I was told by my doctor many years ago to do them monthly, and luckily, I did them regularly and discovered the lump on Lefty.

Thanks to Fighting Cancer Takes Balls
for my new shirt!
Zig Ziglar once said, “Put all excuses aside and remember this: YOU are capable.” I’m assuming he forgot to fully articulate his thoughts, probably because he was doing a self-exam. What he meant to say was, “Put all of the following excuses aside and remember this: YOU are capable... of doing regular self-exams.”

Excuse #1: I didn't know I was supposed to.

Well, you clicked on this page, so now you do. Self-exams should be done monthly. If you haven’t been doing them regularly, start now. Pick a day of the month and stick with it. You have two testicles - maybe do a check on the second of each month (or remind the man in your life to do one). I guess that means I have to do it on the first now.

Excuse #2: I don't know how.

Ever checked a grape for anything wrong before eating it? If yes, you’re halfway there. If not, you should really slow down and look at your food before eating it.

Your scrotum is relaxed in the shower, and you’re hopefully already naked too, so that’s a good place to do a self-exam. The process is easy: just place your index and middle fingers under the testicle with your thumb on top. Firmly but gently (no need to squash the berries), roll the testicle between your fingers. Any weird lumps or bumps should be checked out by a doctor. If you’re doing it monthly (LIKE YOU SHOULD BE DOING), pay attention to any changes from month to month.

My lump was on my left testicle towards the bottom. It felt like a pea-sized pebble, and there was another mass that felt like a baby jellyfish was hugging my testicle. Trust me - it wasn’t that cute. When in doubt, schedule a doctor’s appointment.

Excuse #3: I don't have time.

Stop reading this post, and do one now. I promise I’ll wait.

Seriously, it takes about a minute. (Although it now takes me half the time.) Skip that last Tweet, don’t watch the full Netflix credits, or do one less swipe on Tinder. You need to make the time. Taking care of your health is one of the most important things you can do.

Excuse #4: It's uncomfortable.
You know what else is uncomfortable? Losing your hair, low white blood cell counts, constant nausea, and never-ending fatigue from chemo. In many cases, if you detect a lump early enough, removing the testicle is enough to treat it and you won’t need to endure chemotherapy. Yes, it might suck to lose a ball, but early detection is key. The earlier you catch a lump, the better your prognosis will be, which means you’re less likely to need intense treatment.

Furthermore, it’s your body. Not to be crude or vulgar here, but chances are you’ve gotten familiar with that area of your body a few times before. I can’t think of a better reason to touch yourself than for your health.

Excuse #5: I get checked once a year at the doctor.
There’s a couple points to be made here. First of all, do you really visit your doctor once a year? If you’re like me, my last regular physical was in 2014, although I’ve definitely made up for that with the nearly 100 doctor visits since November.

Here’s another scenario for you to consider. My annual check up was always scheduled in July, since that’s my birthday month. I discovered my lump in October. Had I waited the nine months until my next regularly scheduled appointment (which I probably would have skipped again), who knows how far my cancer would have spread? Paying attention to your testicles once a year just isn’t going to cut it.

Excuse #6: If I do have it, isn't it treatable

While testicular cancer is among the most highly treatable cancers, I would still rather avoid chemotherapy and further treatment. Cancer of any kind has long-lasting physical and mental impacts and isn’t something I would recommend.

That’s also a weak excuse. It’s like saying, “Well I don’t need to wear a seatbelt because if I crash, I can have some surgeries and a long hospital stay and be fine eventually.” Guys, you’re not invincible.

There’s also a somber point to consider here. While testicular cancer is curable in over 90% of cases, that means it causes death in around 10% of men who develop it. Those aren’t odds you should be willing to bet on.
Watermelons are slightly larger than the average testicle,
but work well for demonstrations

Excuse #7: If something's wrong, I'll notice on my own.
False. I had no other symptoms that pointed to a health issue, aside from feeling the lump, which I wouldn’t have caught without a self-check. While it’s true that some people who are diagnosed with testicular cancer have pain, physical swelling, or other signs of something being amiss below the belt, symptoms vary from person to person. Self-exams are the first and easiest line of defense to catch early developments.

Excuse #8: Cancer is for older people.

Also false. 50% of men diagnosed with testicular cancer are between the ages of 15-35. If you consider that old, you’re probably in my fourth grade class (in which case you probably shouldn’t be reading this page until you’re a few years older - but you should come back then!) Testicular cancer can hit anyone at any age, so don’t just chalk it up to something old people have. However, if you’re not vigilant with self-exams, you could look like an old person, walking with a cane and having your hair fall out. I have personal experience with both.

So there you have it.
Eight common excuses for why you might not do a testicular self-exam - and eight reasons why they’re excuses that you should stop making. If you can think of more, let me know in the comments and I’ll update the post. If you’re still unclear about the importance of self-exams, maybe my friend Mr. Deadpool (who also had cancer but got some pretty sweet superpowers, which I regrettably have not gained… yet) can convince you. This is slightly vulgar, so consider yourself warned.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

PCL8: Six Months Later

June 30th marked six months since I finished chemo and rang the bell. In April, I wrote about my recovery two months post-chemo. Six months is another significant milestone, so I decided to write another update.

The bachelor party crew, pictured here in 
our natural savage state
In April, my nausea and fatigue were nearly all gone, but I still had some slight issues. Today, I am completely free of both symptoms. I have not felt nauseous for at least three months, and my energy level is way up. I’ve completed about six weeks of P90X, which is a more challenging strength-building regimen than I had done in the year or two prior to diagnosis. I have also been running more regularly, cutting over three minutes off of my mile time since April. I just returned from my bachelor party with my groomsmen, which involved three days of camping, hiking through a state park, exploring a Civil War battlefield, successfully completing an escape room, and playing paintball and dozens of rounds of Kan Jam. Am I exhausted? Yes - but I am glad I had the energy to do all of that.

Another big change from where I was in April was that I recently had my port removed, which is freeing. I constantly find myself touching the spot where it was to remind me that it’s really gone. The actual incision site is still covered with medical glue, but it appears that the scar is healing nicely. The scar on my hip from my orchiectomy (which was nine months ago) has faded into almost nothing.

Another physical difference is that my hair has completely regrown to its normal length. I even had to get a haircut recently since it was getting too long and ratty. While losing my hair helped me to realize that my outward appearance is not the only thing that makes up my identity, it definitely helps me feel more like myself when I’m able to spike it up again.

While the color and texture of my hair initially seemed to be completely different, it’s getting back to normal. Before chemo, I used to have one strand of hair in the back of my head that was frizzy and curly. No matter how many times I cut it, it always grew back that way. However, since chemo, that strand has not reappeared. Some people get chemo curls; I got chemo straightening.

Haircut selfies
Despite these positive changes, some latent negative side effects are still lingering. Water still tastes funny to me, but adding lemon helps tremendously. I’m not sleeping as well as I was before chemo, but I have also been going to bed later and later. I think I’m resisting going to bed early since I was basically forced into bed by 7:00 during chemo, and I want that time back. I have some minor memory issues and am still going strong with Google Keep to-do lists and random stickies to help me keep track of what I need to get done.

However, the latter two effects may not be due to chemo at all - they may be related to my ongoing struggle with emotional healing. As I outwardly regained my sense of self after chemo, I found that the internal battle to heal continued to rage on.

I’m not the person I was before chemo. I’m not the person I was during chemo. I’m not even the person I was directly after chemo. I am a changed person. While many lessons learned from cancer were for the better, I really find myself struggling to stay upbeat and positive at times.

To be honest, I am terrified of a recurrence. While I am not performing self-checks daily like I was in April, I still find myself habitually starting to perform one. Just recently, I thought I felt another lump. Sometimes I feel pain in my scrotum. Are these symptoms real concerns, or are they the paranoid thoughts of a cancer survivor? I don’t want to be the Boy Who Cried Wolf, but I also want to have constant vigilance. Finding that balance has proven more difficult for me than I thought.

I also struggle to stay even-keeled in my attitude. I often go through drastic mood swings. One moment, I will be totally fine, and the next, I’ll become very sullen and agitated about the smallest things. I know that it’s hard on those around me, and I don’t mean it to be. It’s something I’m aware of and still working on.

Port removal scar
A lot of these side effects might seem like the typical issues that most 20-somethings deal with, but for me, it’s different. I don’t expect someone who has never had a life-threatening diagnosis like mine to understand what it’s like to battle cancer, nor do I expect them to cater to me as I process and heal. My whole life was uprooted in one fell swoop. As I said in the second post on ABSOT, 2016 was my year - engagement, new house, new job, tons of professional growth opportunities, a new puppy, etc etc. When I got my diagnosis, it all came grinding to a halt. It’s hard to come to terms with this major disruption in my life and move on. Life after cancer isn’t easy, and much like PTSD, its effects sometimes take me by surprise. You don’t know what it’s like until you’ve been there. I wouldn’t wish this experience on anyone.

Though it has been tough at times, 2017 has brought a lot of good, too - remission, a new car, another new job, a second clean scan, and our upcoming wedding. But at the same time, it’s much tougher than 2016 was. The physical difficulties brought on by cancer are now pretty much gone, but my experience continues to be hard on my internal self. People tell me I should be happy and excited because I am in remission and survived, but I find it hard to be at times. I don’t really have a real reason for it other than the internal healing is much harder than the physical.

I suppose there is no real timeline or recommended course of action to help overcome this. I was in therapy for a few weeks, but I never seemed to talk about cancer during sessions. The thing is, my downward spiral about cancer isn’t something I can talk about at a regularly scheduled time. It comes and goes as it pleases, announcing itself unexpectedly, much like the cancer did.

I struggled with mental health in high school to the point where I was in weekly therapy and on anti-depressants. I don’t think I’m quite at that stage yet, but I’m also not ashamed to ask for serious help if it gets there. I know that having depression at such a young age gives me a higher likelihood of experiencing it later in life, and I imagine a traumatic event like having cancer further raises the risk.

When I am fine, it seems trivial to talk about. When I am experiencing an episode, I don’t want to talk about it. When I need it most, I can’t bring myself to verbalize what I’m feeling. I know, that’s such a cop out. I tried to talk about how I am feeling with Mallory a week or two ago, but I broke down in tears. When she asked me why I was crying (which is an extremely rare occurrence), I said I didn’t want to talk to her. One of the few people in the world who loves me unconditionally, and I was shutting her out. The next morning I was fine, but we still never discussed why I was so upset the previous evening. This is the cruel irony of cancer remission. I want to talk about it, but at the same time, I don’t.

Here's a slice of pizza and cupcakes for
reading this post.
The arrangement was definitely not staged.
I’ve heard from many people how ABSOT has helped them, but I think running this blog has helped me tenfold. I can let words I will never say out loud flow when I’m writing for the blog.

I’m well aware that this post started as a “hey, these are some great changes” and took a hard left into “my psyche is shattering” and that I’m not providing any real action steps for myself or for others. I don’t think I have any action steps right now; I just need to ride this out until I figure out what to do next.

My next post will most likely be more aligned with the generally witty/happy theme of ABSOT, but I do want to make it a point to always share the full truth of this journey. It’s not always a ball (pun intended) to be a cancer survivor, and I think it’s important for people to know that. For now, I’ll try to keep my spirits up, but I also recognize that it would be more damaging in the long run to always try to mask how I am truly feeling to people who care about me.

Well, that’s a really cheerful post. I’ll end on a positive note. Here’s a testicular cancer joke I found on the web:

“A testicular cancer patient sees a urologist to schedule an orchiectomy. The doctor tells him the operation will cost $4,000. The patient asks him if there's any way he can get a discount. The doctor answers, ‘Well, I could do two for the price of one’.”

Sunday, June 25, 2017

PCL7: Avenging My Port

Shaving my chest in prep
Iron Man, The Hulk, Spider-Man, and Thor: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Brought together by one common thread - to defeat the ever-looming threat of the galactic plan of conquest by the evil villain Thanos.

However, on Wednesday, June 21st, these heroes came together to remove an even bigger nuisance - my chemo port.


A week and a half earlier, I met with Director Fury (Dr. Maurer) at SHIELD Headquarters to review my latest mission report. After another successful scan, he said I could get my port out if I wanted. I did. The port was annoying, itchy, uncomfortable, and painful when Tobi or Conner (our puppy and cat, respectively) jumped on it or when a student hugged me.

The surgery was scheduled for the second day of my summer vacation. In the days leading up to the appointment, the hospital called me to verify that I was coming and to give me instructions. I was not to eat or drink anything for the two hours prior to the scheduled start time. To some, this doesn’t sound like a hard bargain, but for me, it was: I drink water constantly (especially since my chemo-altered taste buds got me addicted to lemon water).

Nonetheless, I survived the drought and took the Quinjet to the hospital. After greeting me, a kind attendant walked me to a waiting room and I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited. Apparently there was an emergency (maybe another attack by Loki?) in that wing of the hospital that morning, and everything was running behind. No worries, though. I forgave the late start time when a nurse brought me another pair of slipper socks: just what I needed to add to my robust collection from my orchiectomy and port placement.

Finally, it was time to begin the procedure. Two nurses wheeled me into another room and hooked up an IV, took my vitals, and ran through my medical history. The supervising nurse is also a cancer survivor, and we traded stories of chemo and life as a survivor. The dynamic between cancer survivors is a cool kind of camaraderie that I can’t really put into words.

As with the staff who greeted me, all of the other nursing staff on duty for my surgery were incredibly nice, too. We talked about the upcoming wedding, my job as a teacher (“Oh, those fourth graders just must love having a male teacher!”), and, naturally, my general love of superheroes (one nurse identified as a Thor fan, while the anesthesiologist identified as actually being the Hulk. Yes, you read that correctly).

The doctor (who called dibs on Spider-Man, which I felt was foolish - he had a perfect opportunity to choose Dr. Strange) came in to talk to me about the procedure. After that, Lady Thor injected me with some medicine that put me into a calm state, one that I find akin to drinking a six-pack of hard cider in one sitting. It made me sleepy, but I did not fall into Odinsleep.

The surgery team tented me up and injected me with a local anesthetic. To be honest, this was the only pain I felt during the procedure. It felt like a short bee sting, followed by a fiery feeling coursing through my chest. Spider-Doc told me I would feel some pressure. Fewer than two minutes later, he said, “Okay, the port is out.”

They then patched me up with some glue, which the Hulk said was just Gorilla Glue from Home Depot (and I’m not sure if he was kidding). I was wheeled back into my original room, where Mallory was waiting.

After being observed for thirty minutes, the nurse gave me my discharge instructions, which were pretty easy to follow - No strenuous exercise for 24 hours (read: Avengers mini-marathon for the next 24 hours), no driving for 24 hours (read: put on a gender-swapped production of Driving Miss Daisy with Mal), and no showers for 48 hours (read: Mal would be sleeping in the guest room to avoid my imminent powerful stench).

I began feeling a dull pain about four hours after my procedure, which I combated with Advil. I took more the following morning and once during the day. Compared to the pain of the neupogen shots or other maladies during cancer treatment, this slight ache was nothing. It was like Ronan in Guardians of the Galaxy - annoying, but ultimately forgettable.

Two days later, I removed the bandage. Though I had shaved my chest in preparation for surgery, the bandage still pulled on the hair, which was more painful than any pain I experienced with the surgery. I looked down and confirmed it - I was no longer Iron Man, with a chest piece keeping me alive. (The nerd in me wants to point out that Tony Stark had his arc reactor removed in Iron Man 3, so technically I still can be Iron Man.)

While getting my port out was a very quick and mostly painless procedure, it represented another hurdle I had overcome. My hair had grown back (just like Groot had regrown into Baby Groot by Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2) and I wasn’t getting drugs pumped regularly into my body, but I still had an obnoxious reminder of cancer in my chest. Besides being physically annoying, it was a constant sign of my journey, and it was one that I couldn’t escape - it was literally a part of me. With it gone, I had tangible proof that I would no longer need chemo and that this phase was 100% behind me. Furthermore, losing the port also represented the last major medical procedure I would have for the foreseeable future. After months of surgeries, chemo, and other visits, I’m just about done with doctor’s visits. While I don’t ever want to necessarily forget this period of my life, I can do without something always literally jabbing me in the chest.

Even though it was out of my body, I still wanted to keep the port. However, since it’s apparently medical waste, I wasn’t allowed to take it home with me, but they did show it to me before they threw it away. Talk about poor service - I paid hundreds of dollars for this thing and I don’t even get to keep it! (Just kidding, I have nothing but good things to say about the hospital.) Lady Thor asked me why I wanted to keep it, especially since it’s a reminder of the bad times.

Finally deported
I don’t see it that way. I see it as the vessel that helped to save my life. Yes, it was uncomfortable and I’m thankful to have it out, but it saved me by delivering the medicine that killed my cancer. I wanted to keep it as a reminder of what I had overcome. Lady Thor, understanding my love for superheroes, paraphrased Batman from Batman Begins:

“It’s not what’s underneath, but what you do that defines you as a survivor.”

Despite being a die-hard Marvel fan, sometimes, DC actually has good advice.*

*Unless that advice is to try to cram 50 sub-plots into Batman v Superman or reshoot all of Suicide Squad.

Monday, June 12, 2017

PCL6: Scanxiety and the Results

“Your scans are perfectly clean. There is still no cancer in your body on this scan.”

One of the things I hate most about scans is the waiting. If you’re reading this, I didn’t want to put you in suspense (although that is a stellar literary technique). So there you have it - I am still in remission. Feel free to click out of this post. Just kidding!

"No pathologically enlarged lymph nodes...
No metastatic disease"
I had my second follow up scan on Saturday, June 10th. In the morning, I ingested the barium solution (which wasn’t half bad, to be honest, since I went with the mocha flavor this time, though it still had the same post-scan fecal impact) and headed to my scan. While there, the nurse asked if I was experiencing any new pain or symptoms.

I had been experiencing some slight discomfort in my scrotum, but was pretty sure it was due to anxiety stemming from my scan. Nonetheless, I’ve learned that less isn’t more when it comes to medical issues, so I shared that information with the nurse.

“Is the pain in your right or left testicle?”

“Well ma’am, I only have one…”

She blushed and apologized profusely. I simply laughed and thought back to the initial CT scan in November when they asked me if I had ever been diagnosed with cancer, two days after my diagnosis. I’ve now become accustomed to being the Uniballer.

The scan proceeded as expected. Nothing really new to report.

Gosh, I'm so classy
However, my mind was racing afterwards. When would I get results? The day prior, the oncologist office had called and said Dr. Maurer needed to reschedule since he was going on a trip when my appointment was set. (I later found out that it was a surprise getaway for him planned by his wife - that man definitely deserves a vacation!)

They said he couldn’t see me until July. That wasn’t going to fly with me. I was not about to wait a month to get results. My anxiety about recurrence tends to flare up most often when I know a scan is imminent. I feel pain that might not be there and I get trapped in a dungeon of despair. Thoughts of having to go through chemo again flooded my mind. I began making mental lists of what I would need to do if there was a recurrence - contact my new school, shave my hair that had just regrown how I like it, change wedding plans, and stock up on Joe Corbis.

My thoughts were quickly escalating. I didn’t want to be like that for a month so I pressed the issue of getting to hear from him sooner. Dr. Maurer could just call me with results - I would still be happy to come in in July but I wanted to know ASAP.

On Monday, June 12th (the date of this writing and also my brother’s birthday,) I got a call from the oncology office saying they had a last minute opening at 4:30 and they asked if I wanted it. Um… Yes, yes I wanted it.

Mallory and I arrived at the clinic and were shown to a room. I’m pretty sure I’ve now been in all the exam rooms at the clinic between all my various appointments. Dr. Maurer shortly came in (and my mom joined us via FaceTime) and said the above quote. I was still in remission. What a weight lifted off my shoulders, but I still feel it’s wise to stockpile more Joe Corbis.

He showed me my scan. While lymph nodes were still detected on the scan, none were of abnormal size and the nodes are a normal part of a body. He pointed out different organs to me and even said there was a decent showing of muscle. Thank you, Tony Horton.

The next topic of discussion was my medical plans going forward. Most excitingly, I can now get my port out! This is a huge win for me, as it is really uncomfortable and annoying (especially when taller students give me hugs [which is strictly against my policy of no fun, love, or friendship in the classroom] and slam their heads into it) and I just want it out. Once it’s out, I’ll write a post about the process. Additionally, I’m going to have bloodwork done in October and a next set of scans in December (six months out from today and nearly a year post-chemo).

Dr. Maurer asked me how I’m doing, as I continue assimilating to real life. That’s one thing I really always like about him - he treats me as a person first, and a patient second. I told him I was doing better, but have been getting anxious over the past week about my scans. According to him, this is a normal part of the process and gets better with time. I would be willing to bet my left right nut that I’ll feel this same scanxiety in December, but it helps to know that I can move on when I get the good news.

Thus ends the story of scan numero dos. Although it’s a pretty straightforward and boring story, I will take that over a tale of recurrence (even though I already had some blog titles worked up, among them “Lightning Strikes Twice” and “Guess Who’s Back”). It’s the last week of school and a great way to transition into summer.

In the sage words of the wise American prophet Ariana Grande, “I got one less, one less problem.”

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

PCL5: Lessons Learned from Cancer Part I

To say cancer changes your perspective on life would be an understatement. There are physical changes, financial costs, and numerous emotional tolls that you’ll encounter along the way. For me, cancer forced me to take a good, hard look at my life. Just as I teach my students, cancer taught me many lessons.

Find What’s Important

We got our engagement pictures
redone a few weeks ago.
Thanks Amanda and Eric!
Prior to cancer, I was involved in about ten different side projects. I was like a dog chasing a ball (little did I know I was about to lose one). If something sounded like it would be a cool idea or help improve education, I went all in.

However, there are only 24 hours in a day. If I’m spending 8 of them sleeping and another 8 at work, that only leaves 8 hours for cooking, exercise, and leisure time. The more projects I took on, the more quickly that 8 hours of freedom dwindled down as I poured myself into more and more random endeavors. Because of this, I was neglecting my relationships and things that really matter, like my personal relationships and spending time with my cat (yes, I am a crazy cat man).

About halfway through chemo, I realized this. I made the decision to walk away from nearly all of these projects, which seemed hard at the time, but now, I am seeing the benefits. Ultimately, you get one shot at life (unless reincarnation is a thing, in which case I want to be a hawk or an eagle in my next life). I can’t spend all of my free time doing things that ultimately won’t have a lasting impact on my life while ignoring the people who love and support me.

This realization also pushed me to make some other big changes in my life. I’m leaving my job at the end of the year. I have been very fortunate to have a supportive school and a wonderful class this year, but the fact of the matter is I spend over an hour and a half commuting every day. (You could say all this driving drives me nuts, but I only have one.) I’m going to be working at a school that is less than ten minutes from my house next year, and that gives me more time with my fianceĆ© (who will be my wife by then), our pets, and working on spreading awareness with ABSOT.

Friendships Will Change and New Ones Will Form

This was a lesson that came very early on in my cancer journey. Initially, I only shared my diagnosis with my family and a few close friends before deciding that going public with my experience can do a lot of good for men’s health. Most of the select few I chose to tell reacted with support and love, but this wasn’t always the case. One such close friend floored me with how she responded.

Or you could also have a 87-year-old grandfather
who sends you these
I was admittedly distant from all people, including this person, while I was trying to learn how to handle this news and its impact on my life. Because of this, I wasn’t really opening up to her about how I was feeling or my plans to begin ABSOT. One evening while I was trying to share how important ABSOT was to me, she could only focus on how she felt that I was pulling away from her. She responded to a text saying, “I thought our friendship was stronger than you getting cancer.”

Pro tip: Don’t make someone feel like a bad friend while they were recently diagnosed with cancer. Worse, don’t be selfish and make someone’s cancer diagnosis mainly about you and your feelings. I understand that a diagnosis affects all, but in that moment, I didn’t need to feel like my emotions and how I was processing was insignificant compared to her own experience. Suffice it to say, I responded to her saying something to the effect that she wasn’t being the kind of friend I needed, and we do not speak any longer. It was a tough decision, but ultimately I found that this would be better for my healing process.

On the flipside, I received an outpouring of support from people who I would have considered acquaintances and complete strangers. One co-worker who I hadn’t been too close with prior to this checked on me via text numerous times a week. A new Twitter follower sent me a Beaker hat, based on a brief conversation we had about the Muppets Christmas Carol being the greatest Christmas movie of all time. Another casual Twitter follower organized a “Christmas movie drive” to help me complete The Annual Christmas Movie List. Instagram followers reached out with offers to help me during and after chemo. When the chips are down and your world seems to be crumbling before your eyes, you’ll find your people who have your back… and find the courage to cut out the ones who don’t.

It’s OK to Show Emotion

As a society, we’ve decided that men are not to show their feelings while women are painted as emotionally transparent. Cancer shows you that you can’t afford to do that. I kept my emotions in before and during cancer. On the outside, I usually appeared to be calm and collected, but on the inside was a different story.

Internally, I was thinking about dying (even though the mortality rate from testicular cancer is low), the future, and various other worries, but I never shared that with the vast majority of people around me. I felt like I was already enough of a burden that I didn’t want to add more to anyone’s plate.

A bottle can only hold so much. When I would spiral into those thoughts, I would often snap about things that weren’t a big deal. When I realized this, I started trying to express how I was feeling and why that was. If you’re going through a trying time, be open about it. Even now, I am attempting to do better with expressing how I am feeling so if I appear to be mad at something, the person knows it’s not their fault.

Read Part II of Lessons Learned here.

PCL4: Lessons Learned from Cancer Part II

To say cancer changes your perspective on life would be an understatement. There are physical changes, financial costs, and numerous emotional tolls that you’ll encounter along the way. For me, cancer forced me to take a good, hard look at my life. Just as I teach my students, cancer taught me many lessons.

Everyone Has a Cancer Story

Cancer affects nearly one quarter of the population, whether that is from directly having it or an indirect experience from a friend or family member having it. When you’re diagnosed with cancer, you will find that everyone has a story to share.

On one hand, this can be comforting. You’re not alone in this battle and you know who you can turn to. On the other, it can get overwhelming. I would get advice, sometimes unsolicited from complete strangers, that would contradict others’ advice or what my oncologist had told me. I was often confused by what would be “best” for me to do.

If I am asked now about what to expect with cancer, I always preface it by saying it’s my take on it. I’m hesitant to offer advice without being asked because I know it wasn’t something I always appreciated. Be cognizant of that - your best intentions can be somewhat damaging to a cancer patient who is just trying to survive from day to day.

Cancer Can Consume You

As I shared in my Spring Break Paranoia post, I still have a real fear of recurrence. I just scheduled my second post-chemo CT scan, and I could feel those fears pushing through again. I’m sure that everything will be fine (and that I can finally get this itchy port removed), but it’s always on the back of my mind.

Some evenings, I’ll find myself browsing the Internet and ending up on the oncologist’s website or scrolling through cancer patient forums, reading stories of people who had their cancer come back after remission. I don’t know why this is, but I normally realize that it is not helping quell my recurrence fears and put an end to it sooner rather than later.

Running a cancer blog and Instagram might seem counterproductive to not allowing cancer to consume me, but just like it’s important for me to let my emotions out, it’s important to get my feelings about cancer out on my terms and in a way that is helpful for others. Additionally, I think it’s important to have a real perspective for other potential cancer patients, since it was something I had a hard time finding.

"Survivor" is Just the Beginning

Being a survivor is hard, which is something I noticed very early on. People see the hair growing back, the energy levels returning, and other physical signs, but they can’t see inside. In some ways, chemo was weirdly easier than real life. People told me what to do and I could focus on that. I get overwhelmed sometimes with everything I need to do post-cancer, but I’d much rather have my survivor status than spending hours on end hooked up to my chemo machine.

I also don’t like the word “survivor.” It seems so final (and overused by Jeff Probst). Like many cancer survivors, I have a bracelet that says “SURVIVOR” on it in big, bold letters, but I wasn’t crazy about the wording, plus I couldn’t wear it to school, since it also says, “Love my nut.” That’s probably a one-way ticket to HR.

I decided to design my own. (Side note: Finding a website that will make a single silicone wristband for a reasonable price is insane. I ended up going with While I was designing, I used the word SURVIVE instead of SURVIVOR. ABSOT is about ongoing survival. Being told you’re in remission isn’t the end; it’s just the opening to Act II of your life. In the words of Alexander Hamilton (via Lin-Manuel Miranda), I’m not going to throw away my shot. (That’s literally the extent of my knowledge of Hamilton.)

My life was changed by cancer, which is exactly the kind of thing you'd expect to hear from a cancer survivor. In a way, I’m fortunate to have learned these lessons at 25, instead of later in life. (I would have preferred to learn this lesson by maybe losing my iPhone instead of a testicle, but zesty Las Vegas [which is how I say cie la vie]). I’ve found what’s important to me, who I can count on, and how to balance my emotions and cancer journey so I can rock this second shot at life.

Read Part I of Lessons Learned here.

Friday, April 28, 2017

PCL3: Spring Break Paranoia

Mow the lawn - Check. Move the TV out of the bedroom and back to my office (finally) - Check. Write a blog post for my teaching blog - Check. Finish that David Baldacci novel I’ve been working on - Check. Get my port flushed (since I won't get it removed til June) - Check.

I was on spring break from work, after being back for about two months. I was supposed to be a fun time, but midway through I experienced what I thought was sure to be a crisis.

On Wednesday, April 19th, approximately six weeks after being told I was in remission, my worst fear came true - I felt what seemed to be a lump on my remaining right testicle while in the bathroom. (I found it ironic that my first lump was found in the shower and now this one was discovered while using the toilet. I need to avoid bathrooms I suppose.)

Cue full blown panic mode. Cancer is never far from my mind, but lately, I had been feeling more or less normal. Optimistically, I had thought the worst was behind me, but at that moment, it didn’t appear so.

The “lump” felt very similar to the original lump on Lefty: small and pea shaped. I had difficulty finding it at times (since I did self-checks pretty much every five minutes after finding it), but the original lump in October had behaved in the same way.

I found this new “lump” in the evening, around 5 pm. Immediately, I called Dr. Maurer, but the office was closing and Lizz, the receptionist, told me he was on vacation for the week. I left a message for Nurse Jenn, which probably came off a lot more frantic than I meant. I also called Dr. Dumont (my urologist), too, but his office was closed as well. As always, my timing was awful.

I tried to maintain a steady resolve, but it was hard. I knew there was a slim likelihood of the cancer returning, but I didn’t expect there to be any developments this soon. I had been doing self-checks nearly daily; how could I have missed something?

Right before I went to bed, I checked again. The “lump” was indeed still there. I didn’t have pain or anything, but again, I didn’t the first time either. I know that cancerous lumps are often just that - a lump with no pain or other symptoms that indicate a bigger problem.

The next morning, I called Dr. Dumont’s office again and got through. They scheduled an appointment for 1:50 that day. About an hour later, Nurse Jenn called back. She had gotten ahold of Dr. Maurer (despite him being on vacation; sorry for interrupting!) and he ordered an ultrasound at 12:30, with orders to read it on the spot. This would be perfect - I had the ultrasound and then my appointment with Dr. Dumont. No waiting games this time.

The ultrasound was very similar to my first one, with two main exceptions. First, I was checked by two people instead of one because of my newly-minted remission status. Second, they didn't seem as worried as the tech in October did. I took that as a good sign, but I was still sure there was something in there.

After the ultrasound was finished, I met with Dr. Dumont, who did an examination of my testicle as we waited on the ultrasound report. He said he didn’t feel anything abnormal and asked me to check again. I did and had difficulty finding anything, too. It was strange to me because I had clearly felt a “lump” the prior evening.

He excused himself to check if the report had reached him yet and came back to get me a few moments later. He had my original ultrasound of my cancerous left testicle up on the screen. To be frank, it looked very gnarly. If you could imagine taking a ball of aluminum foil, crinkling it more, rolling it in mud, stomping on it, and then forming it into a ball, that’s what my testicle had looked like. I hadn’t ever seen those images, so it was shocking to me. He then showed me the current scan (which appeared to be smooth and egg-shaped) and said he didn’t see any abnormalities. The radiologist’s report hadn’t been completed yet, but in his estimation, he didn’t see anything wrong.

Much like Dr. Maurer had said that some of my latent “side effects” might be psychological, Dr. Dumont said that I might be doing self-checks too often. It’s recommended to do them once a month, but I’ve more or less been doing them daily since I finished chemo. He said, “It’s good to be aware and I’m glad you are. But perseverating on one thing for too long can be almost as damaging as neglecting it.” (Context clues helped me to figure out what perseverating meant.)

One of the things I have liked about Dr. Dumont from the start is how he gives it to me straight. I needed him to say that. I’ve been trying to be proactive, but perhaps I’ve been hyperactive in trying to detect any new cancer. I don’t want to have cancer again, and I definitely don’t want to do any more chemo. However, I think I’ve let my concern turn into paranoia, which is probably typical considering what I’ve been through. Next time I go to counseling, I think it’ll be time to talk about dealing with the aftermath of cancer more so than I have been.

As I pulled out of Dr. Dumont’s office, I gave Nurse Jenn a call to tell her my appointment was done. She had just received the radiologist’s report - there were no signs of cancer in the ultrasound. I thanked her and said I was probably just worrying unnecessarily, to which she said she understood.

I’m happy that this blog post will remain as a single post, rather than a series of posts detailing another surgery and more treatment. It did open my eyes to how quickly I can now start worrying (which surprised me because I was pretty level-headed through everything) but I’m glad it was able to be taken care of within 24 hours. It’s even better that my cancer scare had a positive outcome.

I know I felt something in my testicle the previous night, but I have no idea what it was. As of publishing this, I still don’t feel anything abnormal. However, I will heed Dr. Dumont’s advice and only check myself weekly instead of daily. He suggested, “Mondays suck anyways, so make that your check day.”