Thursday, December 21, 2017

PCL22: Looking for Clarity

I’ve made many mistakes in life, but a recent one that sent me on a troubling downspin was yesterday afternoon. I opened my radiology report from my CT scan on the patient portal from my oncologist’s office. Seeing as the June report was very clear in saying, “No pathologically enlarged lymph nodes [and] no metastatic disease,” I figured I could sneak a peek at the report during a grade level meeting (sorry teammates) and move along with my day.

However, these words did not appear anywhere in the report. In fact, it stated that one lymph node was 1.3 centimeters in size. In June, all of my nodes were subcentimeter in size. This December report didn’t even mention the June one and only compared it to February, which was a remission scan, too. I decided to stop checking it and wait until I met with Dr. Maurer.

Still in remission
and taking care of the emotional healing
Later that evening, my body must have realized the best thing for me was to go to sleep, as I fell asleep during Die Hard around 7:45 pm. I woke up the next morning, raring to go for my 8:00 am appointment, on the first day of winter break.

I got to the office and checked in with the friendly receptionist team who greeted me every day last year. (Throughout the visit to the office, I also got to see all my old medical team, including nurse Jen and my pharmacist buddy. They all got ABSOT bracelets.) After being taken into the exam room and having my blood pressure checked (which wasn’t very high, surprisingly), I was told Dr. Maurer was coming from the hospital and would be a few minutes late. That was fine, as I needed time to collect myself.

As I waited, I noticed that the touch screen billboard in the office said, “Treating cancer doesn’t have to be stressful.” I agree. Treating it wasn’t too stressful. Surviving it is.

Eventually, Dr. Maurer came in, clad in a green shirt and red tie. His subtle holiday attire instantly earned more points with me, since I do love this holiday season. The first words out of his mouth were, “The scan looked good. You’re still in remission.” He must have known I needed to hear that.

I then asked about the 1.3 centimeter node indicated on the report. He pulled up my December, June, February, and November 2016 scans and placed them all side-by-side. Like I’ve always said, I’m not a doctor, so I didn’t quite get what I was looking at, but he did a good job showing and explaining it to me. The 1.3 centimeter node from my December scan did appear to be larger than it was in June. Interestingly enough, and I hope I understood this correctly, my original affected area was along the right side of my body and this node appeared to be on my left (or vice versa).

I asked him what that meant and he sent a message directly to the radiologist who read the report for further clarification. That’s the mark of a good doctor in my opinion. He didn’t say he would do it later; he physically pulled out his phone and did it right then and there. Hopefully it's nothing, and I should have more answers in a week.

He did maintain that I can still be considered as in remission, but we’ll keep an eye on this particular node. My next scan will be in June, as I’m on a six-month scan rotation for the next few years. Six months is a long way off, and I really hope that node doesn't continue to increase in size in that time.

The results of the scan was only one of the main reasons I was anxiously awaiting the meeting. While my physical healing has more or less completely ended, my emotional healing still has a long way to go.

If I'm really honest with myself, a feeling of darkness began less than six months after chemo was over. Ever since the Stranger Things episode and all the recent anniversaries of the beginnings of my cancer journey, it's become more pronounced. I know this darkness well, as it’s not the first time this has happened in my life.

I’ve mentioned it in a few posts, but I suffered from severe clinical depression in high school. The extent was pretty brutal, but I ignored the signs and let it progress to a stage I wish I hadn’t. Recently, I realized I was experiencing many of those same feelings now:

General feelings of “flatness”

Irritability and random outbursts of anger

Difficulty sleeping

Loss of interest in activities


And many more signs that have come and gone throughout the past few months. Since I am almost 10 years older than I was in high school (holy cow I feel old typing that), I realized the warnings and knew I didn’t want to get to the point I was at when I was a teenager.

Some people are into positive thinking, holistic medicine, healing crystals, exercise (or shopping), or whatever else seems to be the flavor of the week as therapy. I go to the gym regularly, and I do find that helps, but I can’t live in the gym 24/7. I tried traditional therapy in the spring, to no real effect. The eTC program helped while I was in the course, but I needed something more. I try to maintain a positive outlook, but staring your mortality in the face derails that slightly. Writing is an outlet for me, but it’s not enough alone.

So I asked Dr. Maurer for antidepressants.

I’m not beneath asking for help and this is the help I need. I know from previous experience that I respond well to these medicines and they help balance me. On my drive home, I asked myself, “Is taking these pills a cop out?” Honestly, I didn’t have an answer at the time.

A few hours later, I was doing a Facebook Live video (watch below) with Nora McMahon of Cancer Grad, and I found my answer. It’s not a cop out. The pills are not going to be the only way I find happiness. Writing helps me process. The gym keeps me healthy, inside and out. These pills will just be another tool in my toolbox for helping me to maintain a positive outlook, which is something I have struggled with since the end of chemo.

I hope by sharing that I’m going on antidepressants, others will find that it’s ok to ask for this type of help. I compare it to needing chemo for cancer or a cast for a broken arm. You wouldn’t say no to either of those, but why are people hesitant to try medication for mental health? In my opinion, it is foolish to suffer due to the stigma that if you need medicine to help be happy, something is wrong with you.

I’m not broken. I’m not weak. I’m not a lesser person for taking these.

If I’ve ever felt brave along this journey, it’s now. I’m asking for help and advocating for my own needs. It’s a step in the right direction to putting me back onto a path of happiness.

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


Sunday, December 17, 2017

PCL21: How to Help a Cancer Patient During the Holidays

Have you checked your Christmas balls?
As I said last year, I absolutely love the holiday season. This year, I’m able to focus solely on embracing the joy and merriment, but that wasn’t necessarily the case last year. Despite the grueling days of chemo and all its side effects, I did my best to maintain my Christmas spirit. As I look back, I realized that there were certain things that helped me a lot during the holidays. The following list details ways loved ones can support a cancer patient during this time of year.

Do things for them

Cancer treatments take a lot out of you, both physically and mentally. I didn’t always have the strength to do things or the mental fortitude to carry out traditional holiday tasks. I needed help, but I didn’t necessarily want to admit defeat and ask.

My brother, Kyle, was still at my house after Thanksgiving, which is the only acceptable time to begin setting up for Christmas. Since I was still recovering from my orchiectomy, I physically couldn’t put up our wooden reindeer in my front yard. Kyle noticed this and asked if he could put them up for me. Unfortunately, I didn’t have an excuse for making him do it again this year.

Similarly, my ABSOT partner, Katie, knows that I watch a different Christmas movie (including Die Hard, Iron Man 3, and Lethal Weapon) leading up to the big day. Usually, I spent hours arranging the movies and making sure it made sense (Home Alone 2 can’t be watched before Home Alone). Knowing that my mind was focused elsewhere, Katie asked if she could make the list for me this year. She ended up creating a really cool digital advent calendar, complete with GIFs to represent movies each day. (This year, I wrapped the DVDs so it’s a surprise every day!)

In both cases, I appreciated that they asked me before doing it. In my post “How to Talk to a Cancer Patient,” I shared that it’s important to offer specific help, but I did appreciate having the final say on what was done for me. Furthermore, both of them accepted input on what I wanted. Kyle asked where I wanted the reindeer, while Katie asked if I had specific requests for certain movies on certain days (the only two concrete days are Muppets Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve and Christmas Story on Christmas Day).

What can you do for the cancer patient in your life? Think about what they have done to celebrate on past holidays and ask them if you can help create the same amount of cheer this year.

Do things with them

One big thing I struggled with during treatment was the feeling of total dependence. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, so help the patient regain their sense of independence by doing holidays activities alongside them.

Last year's tree
The day after Kyle set up the reindeer, it was time to decorate the tree. Since I was going to be spending most of my time in my bedroom, I wanted my Avengers themed tree up there. I wanted to decorate it myself, but I knew I couldn’t carry a tree upstairs, open the ornament boxes, and so on and so forth without getting exhausted. My mom, knowing how important this was to me, stepped in to help and said, “Do you want to do this together?” She brought the tree upstairs, opened the boxes, and then handed me the ornaments. I got to put the ornaments where I chose, including placing Iron Man so he looks like he’s battling Captain America.

Whether it's decorating the tree, making cookies, or something else, be on the lookout for something that you know your cancer patient wants to do and can do, but may need help completing. It’s a small gesture, but it will mean the world to them.

Let them do things for you

Another favorite of my many holiday traditions is creating an ugly Christmas sweater. I’ve made some doozies in the past, and last year I was determined to do the same. Mallory told me that her school was hosting a competition and asked if I wanted to help make hers. I told her that not only would I help, I wanted to do it myself.

Over the course of a few days, I designed and built a fireplace sweater, complete with a three-dimensional mantle, battery-operated lights, and fake candles. Spoiler - she won the competition.

A small gesture, like this or the time I made pizza from scratch for my mom and Mal, are moments I look back on as major wins. Cancer patients don’t always need everyone doing everything for them, so let them do something nice for you when they offer.

Bring on the presents

Last year's sweater
Chestnut roasting on an open fire
It wouldn’t be a Christmas post without the mention of presents. Small things can help brighten a patient’s whole day.

The gift that made me laugh most came from my friend Quinn. Along with a Kylo Ren care package, he sent what appeared to be a coin purse. Upon closer inspection, it was a dried kangaroo’s scrotum from Australia.

But not all gifts need to be cancer related. Another friend got me a memory foam body pillow upon hearing I had difficulty sleeping. Listen to what the cancer patient needs. We don’t all need another “Cancer Sucks” shirt, but there may be something else that we can use to help make life a little easier during chemo.

Be the cheer

I take Christmas cheer to insane levels, but not all cancer patients feel the same. Help them find the sense of joy. There are plenty of holiday song playlists to choose from, or maybe you can drive them through the neighborhood of lights.

One thing to possibly avoid - making every conversation about cancer. Sometimes we just want to forget and enjoy the spirit of the season. Sure, it’s ok to ask about it and how they’re doing, but don’t dwell on their diagnosis.


Respect that they might not be so cheerful

The holidays can be tough for someone with cancer. Sometimes they have to be quarantined from from others due to germs, they may look differently than normal, or any number of reminders that life is anything but normal. These feelings are totally ok, and it’s also ok to not understand what a cancer patient is going through. Be cognizant of this and be the friend they need you to be. Don’t make a hard situation worse by demanding that they show Christmas cheer and positivity at all times.

Even though I love the Christmas season so much, I personally understand that it can be a trying time. I’m not currently in treatment, cancer is still never far from my mind. I’m about twelve days away from my twelve month scan, which is not as great of a gift as turtle doves or lords a-leapin’. I’m doing what I can to not dwell on these thoughts.

Nevertheless, Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year in my opinion and I hope these tips help others to find the same joy. I look forward to it all year round, and this year is no different. To be honest, I think it’s in my blood. I firmly believe that in a past life I truly believe I was a little drummer boy…

Pa rum pum pum pum

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


Saturday, December 2, 2017

PCL20: An Open Letter to Tim Howard and Cremo

Dear Tim Howard and Cremo Company,

From what I understand, one of you is an athlete of some sort and the other is a hair care company. Seeing as I'm not into sports and my shampoo comes from a grocery store, our paths most likely would have never crossed.

Until November.

Since I have no idea who you two are, I'm going to assume the same goes for you knowing me. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Justin Birckbichler. Many words describe me - teacher, husband, cat and dog dad, brother, son, and testicular cancer survivor. The last label brings us to the point of letter.

November is commonly known as No Shave November, a month for men to grow their beards freely. What's less well-known, but infinitely more important, is the why. It was originally designed as a month to spread awareness about men's cancers and health. The creators? A family who lost a father and a husband to colon cancer.

Unfortunately, on social media, it's become an excuse for men to skip shaving their beards and to instead post vain pictures for a month. We must do better, and in fact I have a few ideas on how to get the ball rolling. But this letter isn't about me. It's about you.

You are part of the problem.

Mr. Howard, in the middle of November, you posted a picture showing off your beard and hashtagged it with #NoShaveNovember. A further look revealed that this was a sponsored post by Cremo that advertised their products. No mention was made of the true intentions of No Shave November. Instead, the only purpose the post served was to highlight your beard and to earn some money for Cremo.

Since I had just written a post about using social media for the original purpose of No Shave November, I left the comment to the left. I also followed up with an email to Cremo. But again, this isn't about me. This is about you.

It would be one thing to ignore the comment. I get it. I'm one person with less than two thousand followers, while you're an athlete with almost a million followers. I would have chalked up no answer to never seeing it.

But you did see it.

How do I know this? Less than 24 hours later, my comment disappeared. Gone. Vanished. Someone, maybe not specifically you, had deleted my comment.

Why? Why did someone take the effort to eliminate this pushback? Why couldn't have there been a mea culpa moment? A course correction? A changing of the ways?

We're not so different, you and I. We both have facial hair. We both have passions that have opened up new doors for us. We're both men. We both spend a great deal of time dealing with balls.

I'm not angry… I'm disappointed. One in 250 men will be diagnosed with testicular cancer in their lives. Nearly 200,000 people will be newly diagnosed with colon or prostate cancer in 2017 alone, with about 75,000 dying from those two diseases.

This post, and others, could have been used for good. Raised awareness. Provided self exam tips. Shared risk factors. Anything about health.

But instead we got an ad.

You're not escaping the blame either, Cremo. You commissioned this ad. You paid for it. You've got plenty of posts on your own page using the hashtag, too. None of them mention men’s health.

It's now December. Nothing changed in the remainder of November, despite an email response from you, Cremo, saying that “upcoming posts will explicitly mention the awareness campaign.” To be exact, you posted ten more pictures after our emails, none of which held true to your promise. In fact, a handful of them just tried to push your product yet again.

Another one of your favorite hashtags is #BeardBoldly. You know what would be really bold? Standing up for men's health and following through on your word.

Like I said, I'm not angry, but I am disappointed. More than that, I'm ready to take action. There are 11 months until No Shave November begins again. Guess what I'll be doing on November 1st? Looking at both of your accounts. And I'll repeat it on the 2nd, and the 3rd, and so on and so forth.

I'm hoping this letter makes it to you and that your posts next year are more meaningful.

But if not, I certainly hope I don't see more ads with the hashtag misused again. You have a huge audience. Use it for good. Use it to make a difference in something (other than your bank accounts).

I'm sure you're not the only company and celebrity endorser who have done this. Frankly, I didn't want to look further. But I will be in the future.

Be the change.

Be the leader.

Be better.


Justin Birckbichler

Author's Note: Tim Howard has now blocked me on Instagram after posting this blog and tagging him. 

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


Monday, November 20, 2017

PCL19: ABSOT Turns One!

On October 28th, I celebrated my one year orchiectomyversary, and today marks another milestone in my cancer journey. A Ballsy Sense of Tumor officially launched one year ago today. Prior to beginning ABSOT, I was an avid education blogger. On that educational blog, I shared my diagnosis with the educational world in this post about how I told my students about my cancer, which then ended with a link announcing ABSOT’s creation.

I enjoyed writing those teaching posts (and still do from time to time), but they weren’t something I felt I needed to do. I wanted to share my ideas, but it didn’t help me process anything, mainly because there was nothing to process. Writing a post on active review games isn’t exactly ground-breaking stuff.

However, writing for ABSOT is something I feel compelled to do. While my educational blog was mainly to share ideas, I find that ABSOT is there to share and to help me process. When I find a new resource, such as eTC Express or the Stupid Cancer app, I want to share it with my readers, as it may be helpful to them. If I’m experiencing something upsetting, like the scare of thinking I’ve found a new lump or sensing a panic attack approaching, my first instinct is to write. I’ve basically determined that writing is my therapy and helps me process and cope, which is something I explored in a guest post for the Testicular Cancer Society.

I write for me, but I publish for others. One of my goals is for ABSOT to help others who have been diagnosed with testicular cancer to find the resource I wish I had when I first started. I couldn’t find a patient-friendly resource that detailed the entire journey (from discovery to the struggles of survivorship) and was written from a twenty-something’s perspective. I’m hoping to fill that void and am happy when I hear others have found it helpful.

While that’s one of the missions of ABSOT, the main goal is to open up lines of dialogue about testicular cancer and men’s health in general, such as in my recent post about enforcing the real meaning behind No Shave November. As I’ve moved into the survivorship phase of this cancer journey, I’ve found that promoting open communication been the primary focal point of my recent posts.

Seeing as that’s my main goal now, it may be surprising to hear that ABSOT wasn’t originally envisioned as a public work. Initially, it was a private Google Doc for me to process my thoughts. It wasn’t even called “A Ballsy Sense of Tumor;” the working title was “The Cancer Chronicles.”

I began writing on the day after my first CT scan to catch up to all that had happened to me up until that point. Call it a premonition, but I had a feeling that the story was just beginning rather than ending. I’ve always felt that “The Post-Op” (which occurred after than CT scan) is one of my strongest pieces, as I wrote it in the heat of the moment, which is something that I’ve aimed to do ever since then.

After writing that section of the Doc, it had surpassed 20 pages. I began sharing chapters (which I was calling “stages” at that point, as a first sign of twisted humor) with various friends and family members. Katie, who would later become my ABSOT Editor-In-Chief and partner, put it in my mind that I should make it public.

I went back and forth on the idea and finally decided to do it. However, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to out myself as having one testicle or keep that vague. If you’ve been following the blog and/or Instagram up to this point, you’ve probably guessed that I decided to bare it all (not literally).

I’m glad I did. I feel like I couldn’t be an advocate for men’s health and honest communication if I wasn’t being honest myself. Being a known Uniballer hasn’t negatively impacted my life in any way. If anything, it’s been improved, as people don’t have to feel uneasy around me not knowing if I am open about that fact or not.

This is my favorite comment of all time. It would have at least made sense
on my hair loss post, but it wasn't even close.
If you’re facing your own testicular cancer journey, or any other life changing event, I recommend you begin writing it down. I wasn’t really a writing enthusiast before this, but now I can’t seem to stop. I suppose writing roughly 55,000 words in a year will do that to you. That’s about half the length of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. JK Rowling, may I humbly suggest a spinoff novella - Harry Potter and the Self-Check Challenge?

Whether or not you share your cancer experience is entirely your business, but I’m glad I have all elements of my journey recorded in one place. I occasionally look back at old posts and find details I had forgotten (thanks chemo brain).

Looking back at old posts, it’s hard to pick just one favorite. That being said, I’m going to pick my top posts. These differ from my most read posts, but they’re all just as important to me.

Without further ado, I present the first annual top ten twelve (it was really hard to narrow it down) ABSOT posts of 2016-2017, in descending order:

Honorable Mentions:

Frustration Gone Rogue / Avenging My Port / A Stranger Things Episode - While these are all posts that deal with important times in my journey, I picked them mainly due to the sheer amount of Star Wars, Avengers, and Stranger Things references I crammed into each one, respectively.

How to Make No Shave November Meaningful - This is a newer post so it’s hard to tell where exactly it’ll fall in my mind ranking. However, it’s an important post, especially this month, and has actionable steps in it.

The Official List:

12. Cancer, Christmas, and the New Year - I love the holidays, and it was important to me to share how cancer didn’t squash my joy.

11. Losing My Hair, But Not My Control - This post ended up in a different place than I expected. I learned a lot about myself by losing my hair.

10. Everything is Normal? - The end of one chapter in my journey and the beginning of the next. I already felt that survivorship wasn’t going to be easy.

9. I Lost More Than a Ball… I Lost Time - Losing time to cancer sucks, but I’ve been making sure I make up for that time. This post keeps me accountable.

8. One Year Ago - The newest post of the top twelve, but a quick favorite. It illustrates just how far I’ve come and how much I’ve changed since last October.

7. The Recovery - The first post where I worked some emotion in and got to know about myself more.

6. The Discovery - The post that really started it all. I would feel remiss if I didn’t include it here.

5. No Time for Excuses - I like this post because it pairs well with number one. If only I still had a pair...

4. Six Months Later - I’ve always wanted to be real with ABSOT and this post I feel is the most raw post in the PCL series.

3. The Surgery - This post went back and forth on editing until the last minute if I said “ball removed” or “mass removed.” As I said, I’m glad I chose the former. It also first illustrated my fascination with the use of “balls” in society.

2. The Post Op - My first real, in the moment post. I’ve always come back to this as my gold standard for a post that I get vulnerable in.

1. Six Ways To Talk About Testicles - This is the post I’ve wanted to write since I started ABSOT - Simple, easy ways to get more balls in your word diet.

As ABSOT enters into its second year, I’m not sure which direction it’ll go. I know I will have (thankfully) fewer medical-related events to write about but will still write as topics arise. However, the mission and goals of the blog remain important to me (as I recently shared on the Soar Above Cancer podcast), and I will continue to share the good word of ABSOT as long as Google Domains doesn’t shut me down.

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


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

PCL18: That Time 235 Men Grabbed Their Balls in Public

I went to college at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania. While I almost transferred out of there after my freshman year, I ultimately decided to stay and I'm so glad I did. It became a huge part of my identity (including my current hairstyle), helped me find some of my best friends (read Brett and John’s HBA posts here), and led me to the path I’m on today.

Since graduating in 2013, I’ve been back on campus a handful times to speak at the request of my college professors about different topics in education. On November 6th of this year, I once again found myself on Shippensburg’s campus to speak to a group about an educational topic, but this time the balls I was focused on weren’t my classroom’s yoga balls. I spoke to a room full of men planning to do the largest simultaneous testicular self-exam for a world record attempt.

In 2010, a group of 208 men in the United Kingdom did a simultaneous self-exam and are the current record holders (as of this writing). Jason Greenspan, a fellow testicular cancer survivor and soon-to-be Shippensburg University graduate, decided to break this record. Jason and I initially connected through Instagram when I noticed one of his pictures was taken in the Rec Hall at Shipp.

While texting in the midst of my chemo, Jason asked me if I would speak at his Ship's Got Balls event. Full disclosure - this was in the height of my chemo brain and I don’t recall this conversation, so I’m glad he messaged me again closer to the date to ask me again. This time, with a more normal brain, I was amped up and ready to help.

I didn’t want to just share my cancer experience at this event; I wanted to weave my story in with a call to action. My ABSOT post “No Time for Excuses” fit the bill, so I began reworking it into a speech. In true form, I made sure it contained numerous ball-related puns. Sometimes, I amaze even myself that I haven’t run out of phrases to show how nutty I am.

Bruce and me, pictured here with a
combined two testicles
At the event, Jason organized a “mingle room” with a No Shave November event (which I’ve discussed the importance of here) and other fun, social activities. There were TV reporters there, and I got to talk about the importance of balls on live TV - check out the segments on FOX43 and Local DVM!

Around 8:00, we shifted into the event room. Jason started with opening remarks and shared a bit of his story. I was struck by how similar our stories are (finding a lump through random chance at the peak of our lives, having to endure surgery and chemo, and coming out with a desire to spread awareness), although he was diagnosed at a much earlier age than I was.

After he spoke, Bruce Levy, a retired high school principal and another survivor, came to the stage to share his journey. His story was much different than Jason’s and mine - he had a lot of pain and other symptoms (irregular bowel movements for one, a problem I never have) before being diagnosed. I think it’s good to share that not all roads start the same, but each testicular cancer survivor ends up riding a unicycle at the end.

Then it was my turn to talk. While I’ve spoken at numerous educational conferences, including a keynote in front of about 300 people, this audience was significantly different - a large gathering of frat boys. Nonetheless, I had a mission to do and I began sharing my story, along with the common excuses I hear. I had to be on the ball from the start.

The speech really seemed to resonate with the audience, and numerous students came up to me at the end to share that they loved it. Since they didn’t get too teste with me for my endless puns, I think I’ll continue to fine-tune the speech in hopes of speaking to other groups of guys. Judging by the crowd’s reaction, their favorite line was “It only takes one minute to do a self-exam… or in my case, only 30 seconds.” Check out the entire speech below.

After my speaking part was done, I joined in with a group of guys to listen to the next portion of the program - the mass self check for cancerous masses.

Two local doctors reiterated the importance of self checks and cited various statistics. They then led into how exactly to do an exam. One of them was originally from England, so I am assuming he is a Knight and that he may be in danger of losing his title since he betrayed the UK record. When Sir Dr. Ball Checker told us to reach into our pants to begin the exams, I will be honest, it got a little awkward in the room.

However, I couldn't stand in front of them and address the group about self exam importance and not lead the way. In one swift motion, I unzipped and reached into my pants to begin the procedure. What happened next was nothing short of inspiring.

The guy to my right followed suit, and as I glanced around, I saw more guys were dropping their uncertainty (but not their drawers - there was no nudity at the event) and joining in.

One by one, hand upon hand plunged in to trousers to wrangle the balls within. Guys who looked at each other with uneasy glances just moments prior were checking themselves in what can only be described as a truly touching moment.

Sir Dr. Ball Checker then told us to switch to check our other testicle, which meant my check was done. I immediately switched over to handing out ABSOT bracelets, but first, I did use some hand sanitizer.

Whenever I'm in Shipp, I make sure to visit
my old mentor teacher. I gave him an ABSOT
bracelet, which he wore during
parent-teacher conferences
As I embarked on my three hour drive home, I kept coming back to that moment. 235 men, including myself, had just checked 469 testicles at one time, which has never been done before. As of this publication, results are pending at Guinness for if it is official or not, but that's not what matters to me.

The record attempt was a gimmick to get them there, but the real important point is that 234 men heard about testicular cancer and the impact it had on Jason, Bruce, and me. Beyond sharing our stories, we all touched on a common thread - self checks are important and we need to be talking more about balls.

Those 234 men now know how to do a self-check and hopefully will make it part of their monthly routine. My bigger hope is that they will tell their other friends about it and spark further discussion. I’d love to do this at other universities, even if it’s not as part of an official record attempt.

Was it a long day, with a six hour round trip for a two hour event? Oh yes.

Was it worth it? Absolutely.

Did we grab their attention? I certainly think we did… and their attention was the second most important thing that was grabbed that evening.

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


Tuesday, November 7, 2017

PCL17: How to Make No Shave November Meaningful

While October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, November is focused on men's health awareness - specifically testicular, prostate, and colon cancers. Two organizations share the credit in starting this endeavor: the No Shave November foundation, which encourages no facial hair shaving at all, and the Movember Foundation, which advocates for shaving all but your ‘stash. Both organizations have been around for over a decade and have raised millions of dollars to support research and awareness projects for these cancers.

However, if you ask the average guy what No Shave November entails, they'll probably say something to the effect of, “I don't have to shave for a month, brah!” Perhaps they'll reference something about a playoff beard, which is a concept that is totally foreign to me, as I don’t understand the sportsing. Either way, neither has anything to do with men’s health awareness.

2014 Justin also didn't have smile as his default
I'm not talking down from my mighty throne - I was that guy just three short years ago. At the time, I worked with three men (about two more than you’ll usually find at the average elementary school). We all decided to grow out our beards for the month. Somehow, it was turned into a monetary competition involving the students and staff. Whoever raised the most money had to dye their beard blue and white.

Here's what I remember - somehow it ended in a three way tie. We all had to dye our beards, which made teaching very difficult. Each day, we sent out an all staff email with a daily fact about beards and their significance through history.

What don't I recall? Any mention of testicular, colon, or prostate cancer at all. I don't even know specifically what the money went to, but I think it was the American Cancer Society.

We spent all that time hyping it up to the kids and researching beard facts but never talked about testicles or anything about men’s health. Granted, I still don't discuss testicles with my fourth graders, but you can bet your ass (that's a prostate cancer pun) I talk about it with my co-workers. Imagine if we had used those all staff emails for good instead of random bits of knowledge.

That brings me to my point . This is the first November since ABSOT has been in full effect. One of my major goals is to get men talking about testicles and other male-specific issues. Whether you call it No Shave November, Movember, Novembeard, or anything else, my challenge to you is to do better than 2014 Justin.

How can you do that?

In person...

Make the conversation about the mission - not the beard. Feel free to steal this sample conversation.
“My, Justin, your beard is getting mighty long and unkempt. Why don’t you shave?”
“Well, Jake, I made a commitment to avoid shaving for the whole month of November.”
“But why! You look like a mess!”
“That’s true, but I’m not shaving for a reason. November is a month to raise awareness about men’s health, specifically testicular, prostate, and colon cancer. Growing out my facial hair serves as a visual conversation starter. When’s the last time you treated your health seriously? Have you done a testicular self-check lately?”
“My goodness, you have totally changed my outlook on life. I’ll join you in this unkempt growing and spread the word - right after I jump in the shower to do a testicular self-exam!”
That might be a little sugar coated, but a simple conversation is all it takes. I really like the Movember Foundation’s ALEC (Ask, Listen, Encourage action, Check in) approach to discussing health with other guys. These four simple steps can make all the difference, especially the last one. Following up on these conversations is critical. Don’t make it a once and done talk.

While it takes many months to grow a full Duck Dynasty-level beard, you’ll have enough of an unruly mess by Thanksgiving dinner (or for you international readers, the fourth Thursday in November). Your facial hair can spark the conversation. Nothing brings a family together over the table or friends at a bar like discussions about feeling your balls and prostate exams.

On social media…

My duck face was strong, even if my captions weren't
If you don’t Gram/Tweet/Snap something, did it even happen? I get it - you’re dedicated to growing out this beard, and you need the evidence to prove it. In 2014, I did the same thing. I posted the weekly pictures (to the right) to show my progress. What’s missing from my captions? Actionable steps on how to do a self-exam, suggested ages to schedule colonoscopies, or risk factors for men’s cancers.

Take it a step further - include links to resources about the preceding information. To save you the trouble, here are some great sites:
Sharing links comes with a caveat. Be sure to post links that actually help the cause. In prepping for this post, I searched for the origins of No Shave November. I found this post, entitled “7 Things No One Tells You About No Shave November.” Although the article started promisingly, it quickly devolved into seven random beard “facts” and then took a hard right into an advertisement for razors. Somehow, that link is the sixth hit on Google, which is a huge disappointment. The links I provided above are real, helpful resources. I’d also be more than happy for you to link to ABSOT - this post about shooting down excuses is a great one to use.

Whether you share a how-to, risk factors, or a link for more information, make your captions count by making them meaningful. The average person spends almost two hours every day on social media, and most of that content is cat videos and dank memes. Your purposeful post might just be the share that saves a life.

The “bottom” line…

If you’re growing facial hair in November and choosing to not back it up with real information and spreading awareness, that’s fine. You’re well within your rights to grow a beard and/or mustache, and you can do it all year round!

But if growing your beard is all you’re doing, please don’t act you’re doing it for a bigger cause. It takes balls to not shave for an entire month (especially if you grow in patchy), but it takes even bigger ones to talk about the true reason for the season. I wasn’t sure if I should write this post or not, but I saw some breast cancer survivors/patients who I really respect do the same about the pink ribbon business in October. I felt if they could sack up and write the post, so could I.

Donating to different foundations is awesome but I see just as great of a need to open up the lines of communication and understand the why of what we do. Growing a beard is a privilege as a healthy man, but discussing health (especially issues specific to our health, like these cancers) is a must.

Now excuse me as I get off my soapbox to begin charging my razor for December. I may have started the no shaving festivities slightly early… as in... September.

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


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

PCL16: A Stranger Things Episode

I write this on the eve of my orchiectomyversary. As luck would have it, it was also the day season two of the Netflix show Stranger Things was released. The show was a good marathon towards the end of chemo, so I figured binging it would be a good and harmless way to spend a Friday evening.

I barely made it through the first episode.

(Minor spoilers to follow, but nothing that impacts anything significant for the second season of the show.)

The first season’s plot revolves around a boy, named Will Byars, who goes missing from his home. He's found by the end of the season, but at the start of the second season, he's experiencing visions related to the trauma he experienced while missing. He shares with his doctor that he's seeing things.

Will discussing with his doctor.
He pulls off the gown as well as me.
It's nearly one year to the day of when he disappeared into the Upside Down (kind of like a dark mirror of our world). His doctor listens and states that Will’s experience is normal. It's called the “Anniversary Effect,” which apparently is a real thing. The doctor explains that The Anniversary Effect is when an “anniversary of an event brings back traumatic memories. Sort of opens up the neurological floodgates, so to speak.”

Nearly thirty seconds after the doctor said that line, I started feeling very overwhelmed and anxious for a variety of reasons. I began thinking about some minor inconveniences from earlier in the day. Our HVAC (which we had installed less than three months ago) wasn't pumping hot air, so I had spent two hours earlier bouncing between calls with the installers, the home warranty company, and the manufacturer. Finally, it was resolved (the installers would come out the next day), but by then, it was dinner time. Since Mal and I had plans to start the show, I couldn't go to the gym like I normally do.

I figured I'd just get my workout in the next day, but with the installers coming, I wasn’t sure if that would happen or not. I also wanted popcorn, but a student had brought me a donut that morning. Fitness and clean eating have become a priority to me, which is healthy. However, tonight, a skipped workout, a donut and some popcorn created a feeling of anxiety.

Why am I sharing these trivial things? All of these things happened hours previously and without much fanfare. Ordinarily, they would be minor nuisances.

If you're not familiar with the show, this is Eleven.
She is my spirit animal and she loves Eggos.
But as that scene flashed before my eyes, they all suddenly and unexpectedly hit me like a ton of bricks. I may not have faced a Demogorgon like Will, but I began my battle against another otherworldly creature a year ago: cancer. It dawned on me - I was facing my own Anniversary Effect.

I suppose this is what being triggered feels like or perhaps a mild anxiety attack. It's not a fun feeling. I couldn't necessarily pinpoint why I was feeling that way, beyond the impending day of remembrance for Lefty, and therefore, I wasn’t sure what I really needed to do to move forward.

I decided not to watch episode two, as I didn't want any more fun surprises. I tried to explain to Mallory what I was feeling but as usual, what I say doesn’t quite match my head thoughts.

Instead, I retreated to solitude to write this piece, which admittedly isn't any more clear than my attempts at a verbal explanation, and headed to bed. Before I fell asleep, I did some research on the Anniversary Effect, and I found that non-Netflix doctors recommend to distract yourself with other things as the moment approaches, so sleeping seemed to be a wise choice. Can’t stress over things if you’re sleeping.

As I’ve shared time and time again, I know it's going to be an up and down journey, especially when I hit these not-so-fun milestones. The positive words I wrote in my “One Year Ago” post are still 100% accurate. Those represent my overall feelings as I approached the day; even though what happened today seems to negate that post, this was a moment in time that I felt I needed to share.

Do I feel better as I wrap this up? Not dramatically, but a little better. Writing things down helps me get them out of my head. At the very least, I have a record of what I felt at the time. Some of my favorite posts, like “The Post Op,” “Spring Break Paranoia,” and parts of “Six Months Later,” have been written in the heat of the moment while I'm feeling vulnerable. I can't figure out what I want to say out loud so I write it and let it come out that way. I wasn’t sure what would come of this piece. However, I know myself enough to know that I process things best by writing. That's what I needed in that moment, and that's what I did.

Of one thing I was sure. My anxiety had just been turned up to… Eleven.

Author’s Note: As I edit this piece, it’s the next morning, and I do feel much better. It didn’t even require too many Eggos.

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


Saturday, October 28, 2017

PCL15: One Year Ago

One year ago today, I was put to sleep at around 7:00 am. About two hours later, I woke up 50% more aerodynamic and with 50% less balls. 

It's been exactly a year since my orchiectomy (my orchiectomyversary, if you will), but it feels like this all just started yesterday. I clearly remember the events of October 26th and 28th in 2016.

I was told I had cancer on the 26th. The following video shows my initial thoughts and the first hints of what would later become ABSOT.

This year on the 26th, I spent the day teaching my students, and then prepping a meal for a co-worker who recently had a baby. Being on the other side of the meal prep chain is not nearly as fun as the consumption side of things.

Two days later, I was having a ball cut out of me, and the fiery pain of recovery would be starting soon. In the the video below, I taped my thoughts during the recovery from that surgery.

Today, I'm having a ball watching people be cut open in Jigsaw (judge me all you want, but I love those movies) and will be having a bonfire later this evening. Weird how the past repeats itself, but I much prefer this version of events.

While the physical days semi-mirror each other, much has changed since I entered that hospital waiting room and donned those awesome slipper socks.

Last year, my immediate concerns revolved around what would be happening next. Had the cancer spread? Would I need chemo? (See the video below for my answers, although the video title is a spoiler.)

This year, my thoughts are slightly less dire. Will my students pass their district math test on Monday? (I'm hoping so.) Will I dress up as a scary clown, put a bowl and sign that says “Please Only Take One” on my lap and scare kids as they grab more than one piece candy? (Probably, and that's a sign I should have had on my lap last year too.)

While my immediate priorities aren't about survival like they were last year, my long term goals have definitely changed. My biggest mission last year was to shake up the world of education with the teaching style of Mr. B. Now, I'm focusing on my own classroom and my students. Fame in education isn't something that interests me anymore. It's more about making impact on my students and community than making a name for myself. I haven't even published a piece on my teaching blog since July.

Check your apples! This took way longer to get an
apple seed to stick than I imagined.
However, I've put out a handful of ABSOT blog posts, posted dozens of pictures and videos on Instagram, produced 1,000+ bracelets, and begun work on a few major awareness projects. The aim of all of this is far different than my old goals with educational social media. While those were to make my impact and make myself known, this is about the mission and the cause. I want to be a catalyst to help conversations about testicles be part of everyday conversation. I want men thinking of me and checking themselves (hopefully not at the same time, but whatever works). It's less about me and more about awareness. Now, when people ask me what I do, I respond with “I'm a fourth grade teacher and my passion is to spread awareness about testicular cancer and men's health.”

In nine days, I'll visit Shippensburg University (my alma mater). I had plans to attend homecoming there this weekend last year, but had to sit it out for obvious reasons. This year, I’ll be speaking a group of college students about my journey and goals at the Ship's Got Balls world record attempt. This will be the first of what I hope to be many opportunities to speak directly to men about the importance of early detection and open conversation.

I first mentioned an idea to write a book in February, and I haven’t dropped the ball on it. I still have plans to complete it in the next few years, and have been tossing around ideas on how to make it a helpful guide for men in general.

My quality of life has changed drastically since that surgery many moons ago. Back then, I buried myself in projects, instead of finding what was meaningful to me. I'm making better use of my time now. I don't have a perfect balance but I'm making sure I enjoy the life I do have, as at this point last year I wasn't sure how much longer that would be.

When I write these reflection posts, such as the one at two months and five months (that I miscounted and titled “Six Months Later”), I always make it a point to be real and share my full thoughts. I have no outline for these posts and let the words flow as they come to me. Overall, I'm happier with life than I was a year ago, but I find myself getting angry or upset for seemingly minor matters sometimes. After facing a thing like cancer, I've gained a new perspective on life, and it's hard to see others complain about smaller trivial events or things. I may write a post about this in the future, but it's something I've found myself being aware of a lot more lately.

While the physical scar from surgery has all but faded, the mental and emotional side of things still proves to be harder. Fears of the cancer coming back still terrify me more than the haunted house my dad took me to when I was seven. (As an aside, that was the first time my dad saw me physically assault someone and possibly swear - I have tried to block it out by now, but it still haunts me to this day. See what I did there?)

But I'm trying not to dwell on the recurrence worries. I had blood work done earlier this month, and there were no concerns in the results. I've been working on only doing self checks once or twice a month, but in the past few weeks, the frequency has definitely picked up. I thought I felt a lump the other day, which sent me into a panic for a few days. However, something similar also happened in April and ended up being nothing. At what point does it stop being constant vigilance and start being the boy who cried wolf?

However, those fears are to be expected around this time, and I know they'll spike again in December around my next scan. All in all, it's weird seeing how life has changed in the span of a year, but it's a good weird. This feels like my second shot at life, and I'm making the best of it. I'm looking forward to being able to actually enjoy fall and winter this year, instead of being confined to a chemo chair or bed.

And if you're in the Fredericksburg, VA, area on October 31st, feel free to stop by and take a piece of candy from the clown on the front porch.

But only take one, unless you want to play a game.

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