Monday, April 16, 2018

BOB02: Rob Harvey - Guinness World Record Run Attempt

Rob Harvey is Raising Testicular Cancer Awareness By Attempting to Break the Guinness World Record for Fastest Journey on Foot

Welcome to the Band of Ballers! In this series on ABSOT, I’m turning over control to some other ballsy testicular cancer survivors and patients who have inspired me with their work in advocacy and awareness during and after their diagnosis. This month’s feature is all about Rob Harvey, who is raising awareness for testicular cancer by attempting to break the world record for Fastest Journey on Foot from Lands End to John O’Groats, which covers 874 miles. Enjoy!

The beginning of my testicular cancer journey

Like most cancer patients, I never thought I would have to go through what I have over the last 12 months. Up until around 12 months ago, I was 27 and worked as a personal trainer, who was in good shape. I hadn't had to see a doctor in close to 10 years. I pretty much had the mindset that I was immune to illness and my body was a machine.

I thought I knew my body in great depth, so I figured I would instantly know if something wasn't right. Turns out that this assumption was VERY wrong.

My testicular cancer journey began one night after a shower in July 2017. My girlfriend, who was getting ready in the same room, pointed out that my right testicle was significantly larger than the left. One look down and a quick feel and it was obvious to me that I had not picked up that something was going on down there! The testicle was almost completely solid and visibly larger than the other.

My first thoughts

I thought about all the things I had done recently which could have been the reason for this abnormality. A few weeks before, I had completed a skydive so one thought I had was that the harness had bruised me and caused the swelling. I remembered that my dog enjoys climbing on me and several times had stood somewhere you don't want a dog standing. All these reasons went through my mind and gave me excuses not to go to the doctor.

"I will see what it is like in a week, and then see my doctor if things haven't changed" - that was my attitude to it. It was probably nothing; it just looked (and felt) worse than it actually was.

Luckily, my girlfriend managed to make me see sense and realize that I wasn't being reasonable, so the next day, she drove me to the doctor’s surgery to get checked out.

"I can't have testicular cancer"

My doctor examined me and told me he was referring me to the hospital. He said that I should expect an appointment within the next 2 weeks. He made it very clear what he thought it might be, but I was still in denial. I was confident the hospital would confirm it was nothing to worry about.

However, within 2 weeks, I was being prepped for surgery to remove my testicle and was told I may need chemotherapy afterwards if, after removal, they confirm it is indeed testicular cancer.

All the way through the build up to surgery and waiting for results of various blood tests, CT scans, organ functions test, and various other health assessments, I kept saying to myself, "I can't have testicular cancer. I'm fit and healthy. Cancer doesn't run in my family history. It can't happen to me."

The diagnosis

A week or so after my surgery, I was told that the test results were back and I had testicular cancer. My consultant informed me the tumour was fairly substantial in size and had "additional structures" growing on it so he was continuing my treatment in the form of chemotherapy.

This was the moment I think it actually hit me - I had cancer!

Amazingly, all other test results showed no spread of the cancer, and one dose of chemotherapy was enough to put me on the road to recovery. In the midst of the worst news I had ever been given, there was a silver lining. As of April 2018, I am in active surveillance.

The impact of testicular cancer

Testicular cancer changed my life in a number of ways. Physically, part of my body has been removed. This is still taking me some time to get used to.

The biggest impact of testicular cancer for me though is the weakening of my mental strength. I always considered myself to be mentally strong. Through my fitness training and various challenges undertaken in the past, I had the mental strength to push myself further than most.

Now though, I feel a lot weaker mentally, and I struggle with motivation. I am hoping this improves with time. I have a good support network around me, so I am confident it will.

The impact of testicular cancer on my family can’t be overlooked either. My girlfriend and my parents watched me go through the surgery and chemotherapy. While I was as upbeat as possible, I think they knew I was finding it hard at certain points. That is something they have to live with now too.

What’s next?

On September 30th, 2018, I will start running from Land’s End to John O’Groats in Scotland. One end of the UK to the other! (874 miles)

If this wasn’t intimidating enough, I have decided to make it even harder for myself. My run will be a world record attempt! I will be attempting to break the Guinness World Record for Fastest Journey on Foot from Land’s End to John O Groats. To be successful I will have to run from one sign to the other in less than 9 days 2 hours and 26 minutes. [Editor’s Note: Man, he’s ballsy. I was excited about breaking a 7 minute mile.]

I have decided to take on this stupidly large challenge to get people talking about testicular cancer. Raising awareness is so important so testicular cancer can be noticed and treated as early as possible.

If you want to support me in my world record attempt and awareness raising, check out this blog I write for Ballboys, a testicular cancer charity here in the UK.

To donate to my cause, visit my JustGiving Page. [Editor’s Note (Again): Rob is far too humble to make a big deal out of it, but training for a giant race is practically a full time job. Please consider donating to him so we can all help him focus on this amazing goal! Any amount will help him.]

Testicular cancer is such a treatable form of cancer. It seems so silly that one of the main reasons it turns into a big deal is because we guys don’t like talking about it and are willing to let it grow and develop into something more difficult to treat.

98% of men who are diagnosed with testicular cancer survive for 10 or more years if it is detected early. We guys have a competitive advantage over testicular cancer, so why give that up by failing to check yourself and telling someone if something is wrong? I plan on being in that 98% who survive many years after diagnosis, and I have no reason why that won’t happen.

I got so lucky because my testicular cancer was caught early! I know I keep repeating myself on this, but I cannot stress enough how important it is to catch this stupid disease as early as possible. Do not give up the chance of being in that 98% if the worst happens. Check yourself regularly and speak out as soon as you notice anything that doesn’t seem right.

Be sure to connect with Rob Harvey by visiting him on Twitter (@RobHarvey89), Instagram (@RobHarvey89), Facebook (Rob.Harvey.89), or via email Until next time, Carpe Scrotiem!

Know someone (or even yourself!) who is supporting TC awareness and would be willing to share their story? Drop their name, contact, and why they should be featured into this Google Form and I’ll reach out to them and/or you!

Click the ABSOT logo below to subscribe to the mailing list for the new blog posts, latest testicular cancer information, and self exam reminders!

Don't forget to follow and share ABSOT on social media by clicking the icons below!

A self exam is how most cases of testicular cancer are detected early. Click the image for video directions or click here for a larger version

Sunday, April 1, 2018

PCL26: A Ballsy Challenge

Do You Accept These Ways to Make an Impact During Testicular Cancer Awareness Month?

April is testicular cancer awareness month, my second favorite month of the year (right after July, since that is my birthday - hint, hint). Last year, I wrote a piece about using April as a spark for twelve months of testicular cancer awareness.

If you get lucky, there will be a freak
spring snowstorm and one thing will lead
This year, I’m taking the challenge to the next level and simplifying it with tasks you can easily implement. Similar to the “making #NoShaveNovember meaningful” post, I’ve compiled a list of actionable steps you can do all year long, many without even needing to leave ABSOT (yay for laziness!)

Incorporate six ways to talk about testicles regularly

We need to talk about testicles and men’s health more regularly, but it’s not always easy to start a conversation by leading with, “Hey, I want to talk about balls!”

My all-time favorite (and among the most important, in my opinion) ABSOT post is “Six Ways to Talk About Testicles.” It’s a post that underscores the core values of ABSOT. The post shares six ways to bring up testicles in everyday conversations:
The Conversation Weaver: Find an opportunity to connect a normal conversation to something you know about testicular cancer, a patient/survivor, or anything about men’s health.

The Carpe Scrotiem: Seize the opportunity of a celebrity coming out to speak about his experience with testicular cancer.

The Question: Use or answer a question to get a conversation headed in that direction.
The Misconception Redemption: Hear someone say something totally wrong about testicular cancer? Hit them with some knowledge.

The Pun Game Strong: Testicular cancer isn’t funny, but puns are. Use plays on words with “balls, nuts, sack,” and other related terms for an easy entry point. 
The Blunt Approach: Remember that point when I said to not lead with, “Hey, I want to talk about balls!”? Forget it and do that. Their shock will give you an opening. Use it.

Share a photo a day

Each day throughout the month of April, I will be sharing a graphic with an interesting fact, statistic, risk factor, or something else related to testicular cancer across Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook (all of these accounts are linked at the bottom of this post). When these pictures come up, I highly encourage you to forward them on to the men in your life or tag them in the comments. All of the facts were sourced from reputable sites, and I’ll link to my sources at the bottom of this post. I did put my own ABSOT flair on them, of course.

But what if you’re reading this in October and the pictures are buried under dozens of pictures of me turning everyday objects into balls? I’ll do you one better, and link to the entire slideshow here. From here, you can grab your own copy of the entire thing, download each picture individually, and share as you wish.

Want to take it a step further? Make your own pictures and share them. Include your own journey, stats you find, and whatever else you’d like. Feel free to email them to me and I’ll drop them into the master deck.

Band with the Band of Ballers

This is a new mission with ABSOT, and one I hope takes off quickly. With the exception of my Healthy But Affected features, ABSOT has been primarily discussing testicular health only through my voice. However, I’m just one man with one experience (and one ball.) As I’ve been working on opening up lines of communication about men’s health and testicular cancer awareness, I’ve had the privilege of meeting and talking with some incredible men who have grabbed life by the ball and made the best of their situation.

In essence, my vision for Band of Ballers is to give a platform for other Uniballers to both share their story and highlight what they've done post diagnosis to spread awareness about this disease. There has already been one Band of Ballers feature, written by Ken Lane in March, and I’m looking forward to sharing April’s in a few weeks. For now, this is going to be a monthly feature, but if it goes well, it may become more frequent.

How can you help? Share the posts as they’re published. It’s more than just me who has a mission and a desire to speak about men’s health and get the ball rolling. Follow and reach out to those individuals who are featured. Together, we can make a difference.

I’ve got a skeleton list of people to feature thus far. Know someone (or even yourself!) who is supporting TC awareness and would be willing to share their story? Drop their name, contact, and why they should be featured into this Google Form and I’ll reach out to them and/or you!

Take part in #Takea2nd4theBoys

In Ken Lane’s Band of Ballers feature, he shared about the new campaign to #Takea2nd4theBoys. The premise of #TakeA2nd4TheBoys campaign is simple: you're more likely to remember to check yourself if you have a reminder. Using the link below, you can automatically add this as an event on your Google calendar. Because the majority of men have two balls, the 2nd seemed to be the best date as any for a monthly self-exam. (I assume this means that my hashtag needs to be #Takea1st4TheBoy.) It also takes just a few seconds to perform a thorough exam. Even if you don't have Google Calendar, manually adding this recurring reminder can save your life. Add your own self-exam reminder to your Google Calendar here!

Honestly, I think it’s brilliant. We’re super connected to our phones, and by having a recurring calendar appointment on the second of every month, we’re more likely to remember to do a self-check. In the April 2017 post, I shared how we can learn a lot from women. They have a similar campaign - #FeelItOnTheFirst, founded by Nalie Agustin. This can be our movement.

Share Ken’s page or the ABSOT #Takea2nd4theBoys page with all the men in your life. I literally mean all. It’s as simple as taking one click to add it to your Google Calendar or setting up an appointment on your phone. Include directions in the description so you never forget how. See below for written instructions in the following point.

Simply, talk, text, and tweet about self-exams

Alternatively, share this infographic or
the YouTube video below
This last point is probably the easiest. Simply put - talk, text, and tweet about men’s health regularly. (You can also do other forms of communication, such as email, Facebook, Instagram, and whatever other newfangled apps you kids are using these days, but I’m a big fan of alliteration.) We all have men in our lives - brothers, fathers, husbands, boyfriends, friends, teammates, and random people we meet on the street (or in an Apple Store when you’re stuck there for five hours and give the tech an ABSOT bracelet--but maybe that’s just me).

Make a point each month to choose one of those guys you know and mention men’s health with them. Follow up every month from there. By the end of the year, that’s twelve men you’ll have spoken to. Task them with doing the same. This is starting to sound like a bad word problem, and I’m writing this on a snow day, so I’ll spare you the math - that’s a whole lot of guys (and roughly twice the amount of testicles)!

Make sure whatever you do, you include directions on how to self-check. According the Testicular Cancer Society, only about 42% of surveyed men know how to perform a self-exam. Self-checks and early detection are critical. Do what I do and keep the following self-exam instructions as a note on your phone or on Google Keep. Copying and pasting (copy pasta is my preferred term) is a heck of a lot easier than rewriting the same thing over and over.

How to do a testicular self-exam: 

Best done during or after a shower when the scrotum is relaxed, a self exam is a quick and effective way to catch testicular cancer early on. Just place your index and middle fingers under the testicle with your thumb on top. Firmly but gently, roll each testicle between your fingers. Any weird lumps or bumps should be checked out by a doctor ASAP.

Last year, I ended with a call to action, and it feels like a good thing to do again this year. Next year, I’ll just show up at your house, presumably. Choose one of the five options (or make up your own) I mentioned and commit to doing it once month, every month (kind of like a self-check!)

Check in here on this post in the comments below and let me know how you’re doing. Tweet or ‘Gram me about your action steps. Shoot me an email. Or totally leave me in the dark - that’s fine, too, as long as you’re following through.

This month helps us crack a tough nut of a conversation, but we can’t afford to drop the ball for the other eleven months of the year.


Click the ABSOT logo below to subscribe to the mailing list for the new blog posts, latest testicular cancer information, and self exam reminders!

Don't forget to follow and share ABSOT on social media by clicking the icons below!

A self exam is how most cases of testicular cancer are detected early. Click the image for video directions or click here for a larger version

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

BOB01: Ken Lane - #Takea2nd4theBoys

Ken Lane's #Takea2nd4theBoys Testicular Cancer Awareness Campaign Will Keep Your Self-Exam as a Recurring Event

Welcome to the Band of Ballers! In this series on ABSOT, I’m turning over control to some other ballsy testicular cancer survivors and patients who have inspired me with their work in advocacy and awareness during and after their diagnosis.

This month’s feature is all about Ken Lane, who created the #Takea2nd4theBoys campaign, which you can also learn more about on this page on ABSOT. Enjoy his story and his mission!

The beginning of my testicular cancer journey

In order tell the story of my 2017 bout with testicular cancer, I have to go back to about 2013. To set the scene, I was just coming off of a divorce that completely blindsided me. To make matters worse, I decided to shield myself from the emotional pain by doing the next plausible thing -- becoming a hypochondriac. Before I knew it, every ache, every pain, every funny sensation was the first symptom of my impending death. Even though I was sure in my mind that something was probably wrong, nothing was bad enough to warrant going to the doctor...until one fateful day.

Ken's selfie game is on point -
must be a Uniballer thing
It was around this time that I heard an online PSA entitled "Do Your Testicles Feel Ok?" set to the tune of "Do Your Ears Hang Low?" The gist of the song was that if anything, anything at all about your testicles seemed weird to you, you should consult a doctor. After a self-exam, I noticed that my left testicle was substantially larger than my right one. Surely this would warrant a doctor's visit! After my primary care physician gave me a testicular exam, he concluded that there was nothing abnormal about my testicles and noted that it's actually rare for testicles to be the same size. After that visit, I started to acknowledge how psychologically unhealthy my own hypochondria was becoming.

Fast forward to 2017. By this time, I was married to the woman of my dreams, working in a great job for 2 years, and had just moved into an amazing new house -- everything was fantastic. During one of my routine testicular self-exams, I noticed something weird this time: my testicles were the same size. While there were no growths, no protrusions or pain, my once-smaller right testicle was now identical in size to my left...and much more firm.

Soon after that discovery, during a visit with my primary care physician about something unrelated to my testicles, I just casually brought it up at the end of the visit. He examined my testicles and said nothing seemed off about them. It wasn't until I told him that my right testicle used to be much smaller that further examination even came up. This prompted a referral to have a sonogram.

Fearing the worst

A week later, I had a sonogram that was followed by a phone call about an hour later -- a promptness that concerned me.

"Yeah, there's definitely a mass in your right testicle. It could be cancer. Fortunately, if it is cancer, it's highly treatable. I've referred you over to a urologist for further follow-up." As I hung up the phone, it was though someone had hooked up a delay effects pedal to the call and stomped on it as he said "cancer." "Cancer...cancer...cancer...cancer..." seemed to reverberate around in my head.

Ken and his urologist
The following day, I met with a urologist who even entered the room with a grimace.

"I saw your scan. Man, you must be in a lot of pain."

"No. It feels a little heavier, but it doesn't hurt."

"Really? Then why did you bring it up to your doctor?"

"Because that testicle used to be smaller. Now it's the same size as the left one."

This seemed to make the urologist need to quickly regroup.

"Well, fortunately, the mass seems to be completely contained within the testicle. The next step is to remove it for further diagnosis. We'll know a week later how severe this could possibly be."

The orchiectomy (testicle removal surgery) a few days later went great, and the recovery was not that bad. The worst part of that week of recovery was not pain, but the sleepless nights of wondering how bad this may be. My mind flooded with questions. Is this cancer? Is it aggressive? Has it spread anywhere else? How much time do I have left? How will this affect my wife? Will she be ok? I kept having a mental picture of her, alone, feeding our cat that I had had long before we started dating. Would this cat just be a painful reminder of me every day? Needless to say, it was a long, weird week.

A week that felt like a month had come and gone. The results were in: positive for cancer, but it was a non-aggressive seminoma with no sign of malignancy in the spermatic cord. In other words, the chances that it had spread were extremely low. While I still had standard surveillance via CT scans, chest x-rays, and blood tests, I would not require any additional treatment. A huge wave of relief washed over me.

How I'm making a difference in testicular cancer awareness

Once I took a moment to regroup after recovering from surgery and receiving my very positive prognosis, I was forced to remember how I had been one of the fortunate ones to catch my cancer at such an incredibly early stage. The reason? I was extremely familiar with my testicles due to years of self-exams. Sadly, many men don't even know that they need to be checking their testicles for abnormalities and those that do, by and large, don't know what to look for.

I've told this story many times to many people. In the weeks following my surgery, it seems like almost every male friend wanted to know more, specifically about how they could take preventative measures against testicular cancer for themselves. Beyond telling them "remember to give yourself an exam in the shower every month," I would find myself saying "set a recurring event on your calendar every month to remind you to do a self-exam in the shower." I work in digital marketing, and one of my skills is website conversion optimization -- making it as easy as possible for a website visitor to do what you want them to do. This can mean signing up for a newsletter, visiting a product catalog, and the like. In the spirit of making things easier, I started the #takea2nd4theboys campaign to make adding this reminder to their own calendar and making a monthly self-exam a part of their lives.

The #takea2nd4theboys campaign simply seeks to make it easier for men to remember to take just a few seconds to perform a monthly testicular self-exam in the shower. Because most of us are rarely more than 10 feet from our smartphones, keeping a calendar is easier than ever to remind us of tasks we need to accomplish. The 2nd of every month was chosen simply to add a sense of consistency to the campaign. This allows men to remind their friends about performing a testicular self-exam.

At the #Takea2nd4theBoys page, there is a link that will create an event on someone's Google calendar to remind them to perform a testicular self-exam as well as information about how to perform a self-exam. Because testicular cancer is very treatable if caught early, hopefully, this campaign can help men keep themselves and others diligent in their self-exams to discover any abnormalities earlier for a much better prognosis in the future. Together, we can help keep each other accountable and save lives.

Many blessings,

- Ken

Be sure to connect with Ken by visiting him on Twitter (@kenlane918), on Facebook (@takea2nd4theboys), or on the Contact Page on the #Takea2nd4theBoys page.

Know someone (or even yourself!) who is supporting TC awareness and would be willing to share their story? Drop their name, contact, and why they should be featured into this Google Form and I’ll reach out to them and/or you!

Until next time, Carpe Scrotiem!

Click the ABSOT logo below to subscribe to the mailing list for the new blog posts, latest testicular cancer information, and self exam reminders!

Don't forget to follow and share ABSOT on social media by clicking the icons below!

A self exam is how most cases of testicular cancer are detected early. Click the image for video directions or click here for a larger version

Friday, March 2, 2018

PCL25: My Definition of Surviving - One Year Later

My Definition of Surviving - One Year Later as A Cancer Survivor

March 2nd: Remission Day - the last of my “cancerversaries.”

It's been a year since I made the switch from patient to survivor. While I use survivor as a noun (mainly since it’s a lot easier to say that than “I had cancer last year but now I am in remission”), I never say "I survived cancer." The past tense is too final for me. Instead, l am surviving.

Surviving is...

Choosing to find the positive, even when you’re not feeling it.

A big tenet in how I approached life before cancer was to maintain a positive mindset. I even hosted weekly meetings at school to share out great moments from our week. When I was given a cancer diagnosis, I decided to do the same. Nurse Jenn even noted it in a card she gave me at the end of chemo, writing “You were handed a tough regimen but you were always positive and even when vomiting you were laughing and making a joke.”

Becoming a survivor was a new and equally trying experience. Some days, I was really down in the dumps about how overwhelmed I was feeling about balancing going back to work and also understanding what I had just faced.

A few months into remission, I remember actually thinking that having cancer was easier than facing life. Immediately, I was horrified by this thought and examined why that it had occurred to me. The answer was obvious - while I was feeling crappy, I got to lie around and watch movies all day and had no responsibility. I took that notion and turned it around. Lying around gets old after a few days. I now had the control and power to make my own choices and choose to do what I wanted. Finding my negative thoughts and turning them into positives is something that has helped me keep my spirits up as I continue through this journey.

Recognizing that the physical healing is far easier than the emotional.

My physical healing was more or less complete by the six month mark post-chemo. Very few side effects lingered by then, and my only remaining one is my aversion to plain water. However, the emotional healing had just begun and continues to this day.

Cancer sucks, and recognizing that is a crucial part of the healing process. The outside can be repaired, but the inside takes more work in my opinion. It’s okay and normal. Keep working at it and know that you’ll make progress.

Making a commitment to fitness and healthy eating.

While physically healing is easier, getting back into shape takes work and effort. I was into fitness in college but dropped the ball once I became a real adult. On chemo, I gained ten pounds and a honeymoon in Hawaii only added to that. By August 2017, I was at my heaviest I’ve ever been - 215 pounds. At nearly six feet tall, this is teetering on overweight (and it was definitely not muscle mass that made up the weight). Similar to my approach to my mental health, I knew I had to take control of the situation and make changes. I started shifting to a healthier diet and increasing my activity level. By cooking more whole foods and working out for 30 minutes a few times a week, I’ve shed nearly 40 pounds since August.

Co-workers had commented that I’ve definitely lost weight and look good. My goal isn’t to just be physically where I was before cancer...I want to be better. I’m grabbing life by the ball(s) and making that happen.

Admitting that your mental health just isn't ok and you need help...

It’s equally critical to realize that asking for help about mental health is just as important. In December, I went on antidepressants to help combat feelings of depression. I was feeling down and needed help.

This was the first time I truly felt brave in my journey. I admitted to myself and others that I needed help and made it happen.

And following up when that help wasn't enough.

Even though I started on the medicine prescribed to me for my depression, initially, it didn’t help much. I had to advocate for myself and ask for a higher dose. The doctors agreed, and by late February, I felt tremendously better and continue to do so. Admitting that you need help is the first step - following up on that is equally important.

Proving that you have overcome chemo brain and don’t want to waste your brain power.

"All right, Lefty... Let's see how well 
connected you are..."
Artemis by Andy Weir
The loss of my mental capabilities due to chemo brain bothered me a lot, and I was determined to get them back. I eased my way into it, with reading shorter books and working my way up to longer ones. Last night, I finished 11/22/63, an 850-page Stephen King novel. I highly recommend the book to anyone who likes books about time travel, history, or the JFK assassination, but finishing the book represented more to me than just the bragging rights that come along with completing such a long book. This ridiculously thick book was given to me during chemo and it seemed like an impossible challenge then. Now, I’ve surpassed that seemingly-impossible challenge (in less than six days) and I’m ready to start on the next book.

Prior to cancer, most of my evenings were spent watching movies, playing video games, and endlessly scrolling through social media. Now, you can catch me reading, playing with Rubik’s Cubes (current record is just over one minute), and writing. I know what it’s like to truly veg out (not by choice), and I don’t want to waste that time anymore.

Setting goals, meeting them, and making new ones.

This ties in with the previous points about physical and mental healing. I constantly set fitness and reading goals and work to surpass them. At first, I wanted to run a mile in under ten minutes. When I met that, I wanted to do under nine minutes. Then, I added distance to my goal.

Similarly, I set book goals. I originally wanted to read 60 books in 2018, but now I’m aiming for 100. I’m currently at 23 and may need to up it again by the end of summer.

A cancer patient’s main goal is to beat cancer. Keeping that attitude after being given the all clear is important and makes sure you’re making the best of life.

Using your journey as a springboard for something more.

Best Text Ever
From the beginning, I’ve been sharing my story openly and honestly. I feel that it would be a wasted opportunity to not continue to use my journey as a talking point in a larger narrative about men’s health, and more recently, mental health. I know my journey has prompted other men to take their health more seriously, and that’s an amazing feeling.

If you’re facing cancer, share your story (if you’re comfortable) before, during, and after. It’s cathartic and will help others. If you need support, come check out the monthly App Chat on the Stupid Cancer app on the second Tuesday of the month at 8:00 PM EST. I hear the moderator is a pretty ballsy guy. (Spoiler - it’s me.)

Finding out who and what deserves your time.

I did an entire post on this over the summer (and a larger piece about friendships on The Mighty in the fall), but it’s among the most important lessons I learned as a survivor. Not everyone and everything is deserving of your time.

I spend way more time with the people (and pets) around me than I did before. On my educational blog in December, I shared about how writing about education just wasn’t something I was passionate about anymore, so I shifted it to the back burner (and then proceeded to write a post like a month later - way to go, Mr. B).

You need to figure out what matters to you and focus in on that. It may sound selfish, but I don’t think it is. Ultimately, your life is for you to enjoy to the fullest extent possible.

Knowing that you can genuinely say that you have a second shot at life.

At the end of the day, never forget that you stared death in the face, which is a super uplifting way to end a blog post! Most of the world doesn’t have that experience, but you know what it’s truly like to claw your way back from the other side.

You have a second shot at life - don’t waste it. These are my thoughts on the matter and what it means to truly be surviving. I’ve made some dramatic shifts in my life in the past year and have no intention of looking back.

So in a way, cancer, while you did take Lefty from me, you did do some good in my life. However, I’m still here a year later and you’re not. I guess we know who truly had the will to survive.

Author’s Note: I wasn’t originally planning to even write a blog post today. When I began drafting an Instagram post, I realized that I’d be remiss if I didn’t include this milestone. 1,500 words later, I realized I had more to say than an Insta-caption could cover. 

Click the ABSOT logo below to subscribe to the mailing list for the new blog posts, latest testicular cancer information, and self exam reminders!

Don't forget to follow and share ABSOT on social media by clicking the icons below!

A self exam is how most cases of testicular cancer are detected early. Click the image for video directions or click here for a larger version

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

PCL24: Progress with Prozac

I Realized I Was Feeling Depressed - So I Asked For Antidepressants

Around the five month mark post chemo, I realized something was not quite right. It wasn’t my new fascination with discussing balls at every opportunity; it was more than that - my mood was not what it should have been. At first, I thought it was just the stress of returning to work and transitioning back to being a normal person instead of a cancer patient.

Upon closer inspection, I realized I was still feeling down, but it was summer, so the job reason didn’t make sense. If you’re not at regular reader of ABSOT, I am a teacher, and teachers don’t work in the summer - that’s the main reason we chose this, duh. (If you’re my principal and you’re reading this, please understand that this is a joke.)

"We Don't Make Excuses... We Make Changes"
My classroom and personal mantra
(Also, a rare smile selfie)
However, a new school year began, and I noticed that I was feeling off and just not as enthusiastic as I once was about teaching. It wasn’t that I hated my job; it was that something internally wasn’t quite right, and it was having an impact on my ability to teach to the best of my abilities. My students were still learning, growing, and seemingly enjoying themselves, so they didn’t appear to notice my internal struggle. Nor did my administrators, who are awesome and amazingly supportive of me, or my co-workers, who are also pretty great and put up with endless ball puns during team meetings. Regrettably, we don’t teach about spheres during the geometry unit.

In addition to feeling slightly off at work, I also realized I was feeling irritable and was much quicker to get angry at home. In October, I experienced a full on panic attack while watching an episode of Stranger Things on Netflix on the eve of my orchiectomyversary. Overall, hobbies like reading and cooking didn’t bring me as much pleasure as they once did, and I just felt generally pretty flat.

My past experience with depression

As I’ve alluded to numerous times through my writing on ABSOT, I battled with depression in high school. However, since my only job at that point in my life was to be a student (and school had never been a struggle for me, since I was in the gifted program), it didn’t have an impact on my “job.” It dawned on me that I was now feeling some of the same effects I did back them.

Knowing that having depression at a young age puts me at risk for a recurrence later in life, I decided to look into research about cancer survivors and PTSD/depression to fully understand just how stacked the cards were against me. It didn’t bode well when I first typed “cancer survivors and…” into Google, and “PTSD” and “depression” popped up as the first two suggested results (followed by “alcohol”).

As I researched more, I found this study from 2017 that said about 20% of cancer survivors experience PTSD symptoms within six months of diagnosis. The CDC also reports that cancer survivors take anxiety and depression medication at almost twice the rate of the general population.

After finding this information, I decided to ask for help, specifically in the form of antidepressants at my follow up visit in December. Dr. Maurer agreed to prescribe them, and I thought it would be all pretty rainbows and fluffy unicorns immediately.

Did the antidepressants help right away?

However, about four weeks later, I felt no different. I knew antidepressants could take up to six weeks to show major changes, but I wasn’t feeling even slightly better. Perhaps I even felt worse, as I had these “happy pills” and I still felt down. Maybe something was just wrong with me - beyond the missing testicle.

I’ve learned to be open with my health and feelings, so at my med check up with NP Sullivan, I basically said, “Hey, I don’t think these are working.” Since I am obviously super medically qualified (read as: not qualified at all), I supported my theorem by saying I was on the same dosage I was in high school, and High School Justin was about fifty pounds lighter and ten years younger (and had a terrible taste in hairstyles and girls, but that’s a different story for another day).

NP Sullivan actually agreed with me and decided to increase my dosage. I wish I could say that this was the end of my frustration, but it wasn’t.

Insurance doesn't treat depression as a serious matter

However, this new struggle wasn’t internal - it was externally driven towards insurance companies and American healthcare in general. If you’re an international reader (and I know you’re out there, since according to Blogger’s data I have readers on every continent, except Antarctica, which is a shame since it’s cold as ball(s) there), appreciate it if you have a better healthcare system.

The pills are blue and orange, so that's also pretty cool.
PS - Highly recommend Artemis. Halfway through and
it's fantastic.
When Dr. Maurer first prescribed the pills in December, my prescription was denied, since the pharmacy needed to get “pre-authorization” because apparently, a doctor’s orders aren’t enough. This wouldn’t have been a huge deal, but I was going out of town for a week and wanted to start the pills immediately. Out of desperation, I ended up paying out of pocket for that first fill. About two weeks after starting the pills, the pre-authorization came through, just in time for my dosage increase.

And just in time for another claim denial. Apparently, my original pre-auth covered me only for the original dose. The fact that insurance claims can be denied through an automated system by non-medical professionals is ridiculous to me. Insurance companies, do better.

Long story short, the insurance claim handlers at Dr. Maurer’s office are awesome, and I got pre-authorized for the new dose. (Maybe my mini-rant on Instagram story helped too!) This new pre-auth lasts for a year, and hopefully, I won’t need any more increases.

The positive impact from the antidepressants 

To be honest, I don’t think I will need it. I’m not really sure when I noticed that I was feeling better, but when I wrote my “12 Months Later” post in late-January, things were definitely looking up. I was getting more into the swing of lesson planning and teaching, minor things didn’t bother me as much, and I didn’t find myself complaining as often. I wish I could say that colors were suddenly more vivid, but I’m colorblind and colors don’t ever look bright.

It’s now the end of February, and I feel so much better than I did in September. (Side note - I really feel like Christopher Nolan with the amount of time jumps in this post. My bad.) While I would never say I hated work, I definitely have a better attitude when I walk through the doors of Room 31. Exercise, writing, reading, and cooking have become more enjoyable again. I've even developed a new hobby - Speed solving of Rubik's Cubes. I know, I am super cool and not nerdy at all.

While writing this post, I realized that this one has a better feel and tone, as compared to some of the posts I wrote between September to January, even though it’s about depression, I feel more like myself on a day-to-day basis. I haven’t resumed any sort of formal therapy program, but I know that is definitely recommended while on these pills. It’s on my to-do list to look into in the future.

My takeaways - and how we can treat depression better

My biggest takeaway from this all is to ask for help if you feel you need it. There seems to be such a stigma around mental health and this post is an effort to be open and transparent to help dispel it. Sometimes, mental health isn’t even viewed as a necessary thing to take care of or treat as a serious matter. We treat our bodies and help them to heal when we are sick or injured; why should our mental health and brains be different?

This mini rant on insurance doesn't even begin to
discuss how much everything costs
(A $600 balance from a CT scan I received)
The debacle with the insurance company and preauthorization helps to underscore this issue. When I had “probable strep” in January, although the test came back negative, the company had no problem approving amoxicillin, even though it probably wasn’t necessary. Any other prescription for my myriad of side effects during chemo was filled without an issue. But needing antidepressants? I had to jump through hoops to get those.

I recently saw a Tweet that said, “Depressed people don’t need Prozac. They need running shoes and fresh air.”

That’s a damaging narrative. I tried that, and continue to exercise, but it wasn’t that simple for me. If that’s your opinion, fine. Go run or whatever else works for you. But don’t shame other people for trying what might work for them. Just as I’m not going to fault you for trying homeopathic medicine, don’t go throwing crystals at me for what I’ve chosen. Positive thinking just isn’t enough sometimes.

I hope that this dosage continues to keep my mood elevated and on the upswing. I have no idea how long I’ll need to be on the antidepressants, but I’m not worried about it. What matters to me is that my emotional healing is beginning to catch up to my physical healing, the disparity between the two being something that has been nagging at me since I was cleared for remission.

However, this is something that I should have seen coming. They removed half of my “lower brain” and left my upper brain fully intact… no wonder it’s taking twice as long to heal!

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A self exam is how most cases of testicular cancer are detected early. Click the image for video directions or click here for a larger version

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

PCL23: Twelve Months Later

Twelve Months After Finishing Chemotherapy, I Was a Changed Man

Although it seems like ages ago, today marks twelve months (also known as one year) since I rang the bell and completed my chemotherapy. This time last year, I was apprehensive - had the chemo worked? Would I be cancer free now? When would the side effects end? Would my long, luscious locks grow back?

Spoiler alert: to answer all of those questions, yes, yes, in a few months, and yes.

I wrote “progress updates” at two months and five months (meant to be six, but I counted wrong) post-chemo. When preparing for today’s update, I reread those posts. I was struck how different in tone they were. While I was still experiencing a number of physical side effects two months after chemo, I was seemingly okay mentally. The inverse was true for the five month update - very few physical side effects but a lot of emotional turmoil.

My physical healing is back to normal

My selfie game remains strong
Today, I am revisiting those “progress updates” for a twelve months later post. Physically, I’m 99.999% back to normal. I have not had any feelings of nausea since the perfect storm of the all-you-can-eat pizza buffet and imbibing on the night of my the bachelor party, but that’s not related to chemo in any way. My hair has completely grown back (but I’m contemplating a new style now). My fitness levels are through the roof - I recently ran a mile in less than seven minutes and thirty seconds, my bench press max is higher than it was in college, and I’ve lost over thirty pounds (the ten pounds I gained on chemo, the five on the honeymoon, and then some), making me the lightest since moving to Virginia in 2013. I know these sound like a lot of humblebrags (isn’t that the whole point of social media?), but it’s also a way to show my physical progress.

The only real remnant of a physical side effect (accounting for that 0.001%) is my continued disdain for plain water. This first stemmed from the metallic taste in my mouth during chemo and continued through recovery. I honestly have no idea if that’s even related to a lingering side effect, but I only take my water infused with lemon or cucumber… and shaken, not stirred.

My mental health is doing better

On the mental and emotional side of things, I’m somewhere in between the two and five month updates. One of my biggest frustrations during chemo and beyond was my inability to read a book. I ended up completing 55 books in 2017, 3 fewer than 2016. Honestly, I was disappointed in myself that I didn’t match or surpass the previous year, but I also had to take into consideration that I only read for ten and a half months in 2017 versus nearly all year in 2016.

Now, I can read books with ease, finishing over ten books since the start of 2018 (with a goal of 60 total this year). It seems like a random achievement to strive for, but it’s an important one to me to prove to myself that my brain is fully functioning again.

Overall, chemo brain seems to have less power over me, as I have significantly less difficulty with memory and word retrieval now. At times, I do have some issues remembering what I was trying to do a few minutes prior. Usually, I just retrace my steps (sometimes literally), and that triggers my intention. Google Keep (I find it weirdly awesome to check things off my to-do list) and Alexa still keep me straight on a regular basis.

Upping from 10 mg to 20 mg in early Jan
Emotionally, I’m doing better than I was doing at five months (that was quite a dark place in hindsight), but I’m not quite to the level of the positive and chipper attitude I had two months after chemo. As I’ve shared, I started on antidepressants after my last CT scan, and I’ve been on them for about a month now. They say it takes about six weeks for them to fully take effect.

My doctor recently upped my dose to 30 milligrams a day instead of 20, since I was not feeling any different after four weeks. Since beginning the increased dose, I am noticing that my overall mood is improving. I am hoping that this is due to finding the right pill and not just a placebo effect. As time goes on, I will share another post focusing more on my experiences with these pills.

Being a cancer survivor is a complex journey

Overall, I’d say that twelve months later, I feel physically great, and my emotions are on the upswing for now. I’m sure the physical side of things will maintain its strength (pun fully intended), while the emotional side will be up and down as I travel through life. I wrote a post in October, to commemorate the one year anniversary of my orchiectomy, about how my goals, perspective, and focus have changed since beginning this journey, and it still holds true. I’m looking forward to next January’s edition of this post and seeing where life has taken me by then.

And for the record… my left testicle STILL has not grown back.

But I still have hope, even if that “definitely won’t happen naturally and we’ve asked you repeatedly to please stop calling us, Mr. Birckbichler.”

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A self exam is how most cases of testicular cancer are detected early. Click the image for video directions or click here for a larger version

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

HBA17: How to Support a Caregiver

A Cancer Diagnosis Doesn’t Simply Affect the Patient - It Affects the Caregivers, Too. 

Since the beginning of ABSOT, I gave voices to my loved ones in the Healthy, But Affected series. My mother and wife (then-fiancee), Mallory, were my two primary caregivers during treatment. Without them, I couldn’t have done it. Being a caregiver isn’t easy, so here they share some of the things that helped them get through the experience.

Support them at their workplace as they take on a second job as a caregiver.

Mom: “During Justin’s treatments, my job was very good to me – never made me feel guilty about going to Virginia for weeks at a time. We had a sub who did a great job and my boss never made me feel bad about missing so much work. The parents of the preschoolers really made me feel good when they would ask about Justin. They all understood why I needed to be away from the preschool and no one ever made me feel bad for not being there.”

Mallory: “My school administrators were very supportive. It was never a problem for me to leave early to take Justin to appointments, and they actively wanted to be kept in the loop with Justin’s status. If my grade level team noticed I was having a bad day, they would offer to take on some of my extra responsibilities, like recess duty, so I could take a moment to myself to breathe.”

Take things off their plate.

A bald rose between two thorns
Mallory: “Both Justin’s and my school organized for meals to be delivered, which was a blessing since Justin is the primary cook around our house, and he didn’t always have the stamina to cook. Neighbors chipped in to help with mowing the lawn, shoveling the driveway, and getting groceries for us, so I could focus on helping Justin. Justin’s mom would also help take care of him while I took care of the house, or vice versa, and it was extremely helpful to have two people managing the situation.”

Mom: “A group of friends organized who would bring food each week to my family in PA. It took a burden off any one person (or my family), and I think it helped people feel like they were doing something to help when there was little else they could do. I appreciated that the house was in good shape when I would come home for a week or a weekend - my family that I left behind at home really stepped up their game and took on the tasks that I generally do.”

Ask about their feelings as a caregiver, too.

While my mom said that people would ask her how I was feeling and Mallory said mostly close friends and family members would ask how she was doing, my little sister, Courtney, had a different perspective.

“When Justin was diagnosed, I started to tell people. After sharing, people began to ask me, ‘How’s Justin?’ or ‘How’s your brother doing?’ While it was very nice to ask how he was doing since he was the one doing the real work and the real fight, rarely was I ever asked how I was doing.

Honestly, I was not okay. I was 16 years old, and my older brother, who is only 25, had cancer. How in any way would I be okay!?

I was up in Pennsylvania over 3 hours away from him, and I didn’t always know what was going on. To make it even harder, since our mom was down in Virginia as his caregiver, I couldn’t even talk to her about it.

A cancer experience is primarily focused on the patient, and, in my experience, it seems that not as much thought is given to the family member of the cancer patient, especially if they’re not an immediate caregiver. Everyone is nice enough to ask how the cancer patient is doing, but if I counted how many times I was asked how I was doing, I could use one hand. This time was really hard for me, and no one seemed to care to ask about me. While Justin was the one going through it all, he has always been my best buddy and I was being affected by it in a different way.”

Small caregiver gifts go a long way.

: “Some of my friends put together a gift basket for me filled with things to do while sitting for hours at chemo or for my long drives to Virginia. Things like books, movies, books on CD, nail polish, lotions, bath bombs, coloring books, colored pencils and snacks. I loved coloring adult coloring books at chemo as it passed the time very quickly. Someone let me borrow their entire DVD collection of Downton Abbey, and that helped fill the time. Another friend gave me a gift certificate for two massages, which really helped me relieve stress.

Mom rocking out while coloring
While the massages helped provide physical relief, one of the most symbolic and special things I received during Justin’s treatment was an anchor charm for my Pandora charm bracelet from his dad. He said I am the anchor of this family. That meant a lot to me because I felt so torn in so many directions – I knew I wanted to be able to help Justin, but I also knew I was leaving the rest of the family behind to do the things I normally do for them. I had guilt when I was away from them and guilt when I was away from Justin. By Dad giving me the anchor, it made me realize that I was the anchor of the family and was needed everywhere, but I was doing ok by helping everywhere.”

Mallory: “I got a bracelet from Justin’s aunt that said, ‘Courage and strength,’ which helped me find a symbol of strength. Some co-workers got gifts for us to help give us something to do when Justin was having a good day, like a movie night basket. I also enjoyed coloring books, as they helped me to relieve anxiety in a calming way.”

Accept that cancer sucks, and it’s ok to say that to the caregiver...

Mom: “One of my good friends once told her after she had a stillborn that she needed to hear people say “this sucks,” rather than always hearing positive comments. Don’t get me wrong, positive comments are good too, but every now and then, it is ok to be down, and it is ok to hear that ‘this sucks’ because it really does. I have tried to remember that ever since she told me that she needed to hear that sometimes. So tell the patient that it is ok to have down days, and realize yourself that you can’t be positive all the time. But also my dad’s voice is always in my ear saying “just tell me what I have to do to take care of this and I will do it,” so I know I often said that during the course of Justin’s treatment.”

Mallory: “One of Justin’s former co-workers sent me a card that basically said that and it was nice to see that it’s ok to be angry about cancer. A colleague at my school even offered her classroom (which is secluded from the rest of the school) as a place I could come and scream to let out frustration. I never took her up on that offer, but it was nice to know the chance was there. People understood and embraced my feelings and never made me feel bad for saying when things weren’t great.”

...but remember to encourage them to find silver linings where they can.

Mom: “In a weird way it was a blessing because I feel like Justin and I got closer during that time and I also got to know my daughter-in-law much more than most mothers-in-law ever get to know their son’s wife. And she still even seems to like me after spending all those months together!”

Mallory: “I really got to know my mother-in-law better and now we have a deeper connection on a level that not many people do. [Author’s Note - I can attest to this, as they have a constant group text that I am needlessly included in]. Another silver lining was that I was able to find enough strength to pull myself together and let go of my worries and fears during the treatment process.”

While many of my posts are from my perspective as a patient or survivor, it’s equally as important to recognize the efforts and struggles the caregivers face. I’d like to thank Mom, Mallory, and Courtney for sharing their thoughts here, and I hope their words help you support a caregiver you know. 

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A self exam is how most cases of testicular cancer are detected early. Click the image for video directions or click here for a larger version