Sunday, June 25, 2017

PCL7: Avenging My Port

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

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


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

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

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

And waited.

And waited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 12, 2017

PCL6: Scanxiety and the Results

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

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

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

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

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

“Well ma’am, I only have one…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

PCL5: Lessons Learned from Cancer Part I

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

Find What’s Important

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

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

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

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

Friendships Will Change and New Ones Will Form

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

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

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

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

It’s OK to Show Emotion

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

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

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

Read Part II of Lessons Learned here.

PCL4: Lessons Learned from Cancer Part II

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

Everyone Has a Cancer Story

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

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

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

Cancer Can Consume You

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

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

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

"Survivor" is Just the Beginning

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

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

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

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

Read Part I of Lessons Learned here.

Friday, April 28, 2017

PCL3: Spring Break Paranoia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 20, 2017

PCL2: April is Only the Beginning

April is Testicular Cancer Awareness Month. Prior to being diagnosed, I had no idea that there was a specific month for a cancer that solely affects men. Testicular cancer is under-discussed. Perhaps it’s an issue of visibility, since testicles are usually concealed (unless you’re on some beaches in France).

I’ve been running ABSOT with the explicit goal of changing the attitudes and beliefs of society towards talking about men’s health. However, I’m just one person with a blog and still feel like society has a long way to go before testicular cancer is as acceptable to discuss as I’d like it to be.

I have hope though, especially when I look at another cancer that is generally thought of as gender-specific: breast cancer. It wasn’t easy for breast cancer activists to raise the level of awareness that the disease has today. As recently as the 1950s, the New York Times refused to print articles that contained the word “breasts.” In the 1970s, Shirley Temple Black and First Lady Betty Ford publicly announced their diagnoses, which helped bring widespread attention and acceptance to this cancer. Nowadays, dozens of female celebrities speak out about their personal battles, NFL teams wear pink to bring more attention to the disease, and many other companies and highly-visible corporations make a point to contribute to the discussion around breast cancer.

When it comes to testicular cancer, if you ask anyone to name a celebrity with a TC diagnosis, they will most likely respond with Lance Armstrong (who then went on to have some other personal troubles). Not the best “face” of the disease. However, recently, I’ve read stories of more and more athletes, celebrities, and even a YouTube personality who are sharing their testicular cancer battles. A step in the right direction.

I want to live in a world where we can freely talk about testicular self-exams. I want conversation to be open about all health issues, but I’m especially passionate about men’s health. Not talking about it can be a potentially life-threatening mistake.

I’ve already written about how men are hesitant to go to the doctor. I know I was. Even making a phone call to a medical professional seemed to be such an arduous task, although in all likelihood it saved my life.

One egg in my Easter basket
The other day I saw a friend whom I hadn’t seen since before my diagnosis. After exchanging pleasantries, he asked me how I was doing and said he was thinking a lot about how I had testicular cancer. He said that he didn’t even know what to look for. I took this as an opportunity to give him a quick rundown on how to do a self-check and recommended that he do them at least once a month.

Despite my willingness to discuss this on my blog, I still felt a little strange talking about it verbally with another guy. I wish I didn’t, but I also want to be honest about the limitations that surround having open conversations about testicular cancer. While we were talking about it, I don’t think the word ‘testicle’ or ‘ball’ or any of the other variations was used. I want to change this dialogue, both for myself and for everyone else. I want it to be deemed as okay and not weird to talk about testicles under medical circumstances. I know this starts with me. Confronting my own discomfort will help me start to have more honest conversations. But I know that I am only a small part of what needs to be a widespread change.

How can we as a society overcome the stigma that surrounds testicular cancer? Having months like April designated as “awareness months” is helpful, but awareness can’t be something that only happens for one month out of the year. I found a lump in October and was diagnosed in November. April is a long way off from those months. Discussions about self-checks need to happen more frequently.

There are fundraising runs and events, but I only know this because I’m looking for them as a testicular cancer survivor. I was aware because I had to be: testicular cancer was a part of my life, like it or not. But what about those men from 15-35 who are highly susceptible to testicular cancer? Like me, the average guy doesn’t know about the importance of regular self checks until it’s too late, and I know this is sad truth is because people don’t want to talk about their testicles. Testicular cancer is highly treatable, especially in its early stages, but that does no good if men simply aren’t aware of their own risk. We can’t let these conversations about testicular health, no matter how awkward they might be, get brushed aside because society feels uncomfortable discussing testicles.

My goal with ABSOT is and always will be to bring awareness to this disease and to discuss it openly with the hopes that it inspires others to do the same. I recently joined the Testicular Cancer Awareness Foundation Ambassadors program to help continue working towards this goal. I don’t have all the answers, but I know testicular cancer awareness and open discussions about men’s health is a mission that needs to be important to all people. Simply put, testicular cancer does affect everyone, not just men. It affects anyone who has a father, a brother, a husband, a son, or a male friend.

Here's my challenge to you: Share this blog (whether it's this post or the whole site) with two males that are important to you and encourage them to do the same. We need to get more information into the hands of the men that lives can be saved by having more frank discussions about this topic.

Will you help me get the ball rolling and shed some light where the sun don’t shine?

Monday, April 10, 2017

PCL1: Two Months Later

It’s been a little over two months since I completed chemotherapy. Since then, I’ve had many physical and mental changes. My original plan was to write this in a “Where I was on the last day of chemo,” “Where I was one month after chemo,” and “Where I am today” format,” but I am struggling to remember back that far. One of my Twitter colleagues who also faced cancer told me that I would have difficulty looking back and remembering things. I now understand what she meant.

I'm able to run now, but it's
not necessarily easy
Even though I am having a hard time recalling anecdotes from two months ago, I feel like a lot of my cognitive function has returned. Sometimes I still struggle with speed of word retrieval, but the right word eventually comes to me. Occasionally, I forget what I was about to do or get highly distracted, but I chalk that up to me just being me rather than latent effects of chemo brain. I’m still finding writing down to-do lists on sticky notes or Google Keep is a really good way to make sure I get everything accomplished.

One of my biggest frustrations during chemo was not being able to focus long enough to read. Thankfully, this ability returned much quicker than I expected. I have now read eight books since the middle of February (technically three were audiobooks, but that still counts). I found “easing my way” back into reading was hugely helpful. I read two books that were in the 100-200 page region, then a 250 page book (which was about Iron Man so my inner manchild rejoiced), and now I’m working on a 450 page book. Taking baby steps to get back into it helped me feel successful and allowed me to practice focusing on books again.

Another issue that I dealt with immediately after chemo’s completion was feeling worried about my health. For now, I am feeling much less anxious about cancer than I was in the beginning of March. I know this will ebb and flow as I go through the first year of remission (and beyond). My next scan isn’t until June, and I wonder if my anxiety will spike again then. I have started going to counseling, but talking about cancer hasn’t been the focal point yet.

I got to travel to my undergrad college to present
My nausea during chemo was well-documented (warning: don’t read while eating rice). The unsettled feeling that I had even a month after chemo has more or less subsided now. After finishing chemo and no longer getting those sweet, sweet intravenous anti-nausea meds, I had to rely pretty much exclusively on my compazine (my main anti-nausea pills) to get me through the days. Eventually, I switched to mints and ginger drops to help calm my stomach. Dr. Maurer had also told me that some of my nauseous feelings might be tied to anxiety, and accepting that seemed to help me move past it. Now, I suck on a mint or two every so often as the need arises, but it’s not a regular occurrence anymore.

On the topic of pills, I completely have stopped taking my Ambien, which was a necessity during (and even after completing) treatment, as one of the side effects of the cocktail of medications I was on was sleeplessness. I tried to stop cold turkey (which is a really weird expression because I love cold turkey sandwiches) soon after finishing chemo, and that didn’t work. I guess going from the max dose to nothing isn’t a good plan. I tapered myself off of them by going to half doses for a few weeks and then every other day. Now, I can sleep soundly through the night. I have some difficulty falling asleep, but this has been a lifelong problem. However, it feels nice to get a good night’s rest naturally. No longer having Ambien-induced weird dreams is another plus, although I did have a really wild dream last night about being in a Transformers movie. Michael Bay, feel free to call me.

Along with sleeping better, I have far more energy now. During chemo, my mortal enemy was stairs. I would need to pause on the way up or down half the time. A weekend or two ago, I loaded an entire pickup truck of firewood all by myself (my dad would say he helped, but holding a chainsaw and doing nothing doesn’t constitute assistance in my opinion). I’m also jogging after school nearly every other day. I’m not quite able to run the 6 minute mile of high school Justin, but I’m making incremental progress (high school Justin was also about 50 pounds lighter).

I can also get through school days without feeling 100% drained by the afternoon. I’ve even traveled to different places in Virginia and Pennsylvania to present at different conferences, which was something that I would have never anticipated being able to do so soon after chemo.

My hair looks pretty good in pink, too.
Perhaps the most noticeable physical change is hair regrowth. About a month after chemo ended, I had approximately 10 strands of hair on my head and what I’d term a two-o’clock shadow of a beard. However, just as my hair started to fall out seemingly overnight, my beard regrew in all its glory almost the next day. (It was closer to a week realistically.) I’ve even had to trim my beard twice since the beginning of March.
My head hair didn’t get that memo quite as quickly, but now I have somewhere between a rich fuzz and my normal length of hair on my noggin. People ask me if I’ll keep it short or go back to my normal faux hawk style. I’ll probably go back to the faux hawk when I can, but until then, I don’t mind the short style.

It’s been a winding road to recovery. I would say I’m at 90% capacity for feeling back to normal. I know there will be some bad days here and there, both physically and mentally, but I’m enjoying the good days while they are here. In another few months, I’ll do another check in post to see how things have progressed. My left testicle hasn’t regrown yet, but I’m told “that doesn’t happen and to please stop asking.”

This is the first post in a new series - Post Cancer Life (PCL). 

Monday, March 20, 2017

CC17: Thank You

Since the beginning of ABSOT, I’ve used Saturdays to let others share their feelings about my diagnosis. Today, it’s my turn to give thanks.

To Dr. Maurer, Nurse Jenn, and my healthcare team at HOAF -

Chemo is not a fun time. Period. However, you all made it as enjoyable as possible. Even on days that I wasn’t feeling great, especially when I was both the youngest and the most vomit-producing patient, each of you made me feel comfortable.

I liked getting to chat with you about my life and hearing about yours. Some of those conversations are not fit for publishing here, but they put a smile on my face. That’s perhaps the best part of being a patient with you all - I felt like you got to know me as a person first and a cancer patient second.

Being a cancer patient was still a huge part of our relationship. When I experienced a setback, of which there were many, you were there with advice and medicine to help me get over that hurdle. Ringing the bell at the end was a bittersweet feeling. I was glad to be done with the treatments, but I wouldn’t get to see you guys daily. However, I’ll be sure to stop in soon. Thank you for the best medical care and your friendship.

To my mom -

This is what happens when you take
selfies on my phone without permission
I’m not the world’s easiest son to deal with (though I am the world’s best son). I’ve always known how to push your buttons and drive you to the brink of insanity, but I know you are always there for me no matter what. When I told you that I might have cancer, your first words were, “What can I do to help?” Even though I live three states south, you were willing to come down to care for me for as long as I needed during surgery recovery and later chemo. Whether it was driving me for treatment, cleaning up my vomit, or doing my laundry, you did whatever I asked without complaining and with great compassion.

Words can’t express how appreciative I am of your visits down here, although I wish they were under different circumstances. You happen to be here this weekend, and it’s the first time we’ve seen each other since finishing chemo. As I type this on Thursday evening, I’m sure it’s a wonderful time. I’ve saved my laundry for you to do, if you’re in the mood (for old time’s sake).

Thank you for all you did for me. I really feel like we got to bond while I was out of commission and I’m glad we did. I will truly never be able to repay you for what you did for me. However, I promise when you get old and senile that I will put you in a slightly nicer home than I was planning on before going through cancer. I love you.

To Mallory -

Cancer was, and remains, one of your biggest fears. It’s touched your life in many terrible ways, and you have a right to fear it. Your view of cancer is probably what prompted me to take that initial lump more seriously than I may have if we were not together. Thank you for that awareness.

Despite you trying to do everything possible to prevent it, cancer was in our home. I know it must have terrified you, but your strength through it amazed me. You managed to care for me, our pets, the house, and yourself all at the same time (with help from my mom). I knew I could be vulnerable with you and you would be there for me as my rock.

It’s a cliche and sort of weird thing to say, but cancer strengthened our relationship. It helped show us what is important, and it’s not arguing over whose turn it is to do dishes (plot twist: it’s always yours). What matters is being there for each other all the time, no matter what. I don’t know what the future holds for us, but I know that together we will do great things, and this experience has helped bring us closer as a couple. I love you.

To my other family and friends -

I know I am doing a disservice by not individually thanking each of you, but there are far too many people I need to thank to properly do it justice. From diagnosis to remission, I received a ton of support in various ways: texts, calls, emails, gifts, cards, food, and so much more. (And Dad, your endless ball-related puns always put a begrudging grin on my face, while Kyle's asking if I was ready for Mexican masked wrestling brought a confused smile to my face.) Each showing of care helped me tremendously in my healing process.

Oftentimes, a simple “How are you doing?” was the greatest gift you could give me (although Deadpool pajamas are pretty awesome too). Hearing that you were sharing my story and helping to spread awareness was an even better feeling, especially when Courtney told me she was making this year's "Strike Out Cancer" softball game dedicated to testicular cancer and me. You all helped me make my cancer bigger than just my own battle.

I had a great support team in all of you. Some of you have known me my whole life, some have been in my life for a few years, and some I have never met face-to-face. However, each of you played a vital role in my journey. Thank you for the kindness, care, and compassion you showed me in a tough time in life.

This concludes the Chemo Chronicle section of my story. Posts from this point onward will be labeled as Post Cancer Life (PCL). 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

TBT16: The Next 18 Days (Friends/Family Edition)

During the eighteen days of “down time,” I also had time to catch up with family and friends, amidst the final days of working and baseline medical procedures.

When I got home from my port pre-op appointment on Friday, November 11th, I realized that, in addition to being home alone, I was also on my own for lunch. It was liberating. Someone else had been making and serving my meals since the surgery, and this would be the first time I would fend for myself. I ended up heating up a bunch of leftovers, which was a small victory.

Other signs of normalcy appeared during these eighteen days. On Sunday, we went for our wedding cake testing. It was a nice change of pace - something light and cheery instead of more devastating news(Although, designing a wedding cake still is not my definition of fun.) However, I wasn’t able to forget about my diagnosis for long, as I was struck with a pain attack from my incision nearing the end of the consultation, causing us to need to leave. Mal needed some things from Target, but I needed to get home to ice my incision. I tried making plans for her to drop me off and then go, but she didn’t have time. We argued back and forth about how she could do both, but ultimately, we couldn’t make it work.

It really upset me to the point of tears (not that Mallory was to blame.) I’m usually extremely independent and can solve problems, but now, I was practically useless and at the mercy of my diagnosis and all it entailed. I wasn’t allowed to lift things at all, couldn’t bend over very much, and now, it seemed I couldn't even solve a minor problem. It wasn’t the actual event; it was the culmination of my feelings of frustration paired with the realization this would be my life for the next few months. It was a reminder that life still wasn’t really back to normal. One minute, we’re planning our wedding; the next, I’m doubled over in pain.

Despite setbacks like these, for the most part, life was appearing to be normal. John came to visit on Saturday, November 19th. It was nice to see my friend, even if my port and incision stopped us from doing much. We spent the time together playing Call of Duty, watching Deadpool, and competing on a practice Praxis (teacher licensure) exam, a tradition we have had since college. I know, we are super cool. On Sunday morning, I was not in too much pain or discomfort, so we ventured out for breakfast and Wal-Mart. It was only the second time (the first time being to see Dr. Strange) that I had left the house since this all began for something other than work or a doctor’s appointment. It was a seemingly normal activity, but again, reminders that I was still a cancer patient were still present, as I had to use one of the motorized carts in Wal-Mart to help with mobility. Nonetheless, it was a nice change of scenery.

The rest of my family arrived the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. My parents had a new king mattress for us, and we had to get it upstairs. Under normal circumstances, I would be one of the powerhouses to get it up and over the railing, but I still wasn’t allowed to do strenuous exercise. As a teenager, I would do just about anything to get out of doing work, but now, I wanted nothing more than to help. It was yet another reminder of how things were changing in my life.

I was also beginning to feel tired throughout the day, especially in the evening. A side effect of cancer is general fatigue, even before chemo begins. This was the first “real” symptom of cancer I was feeling, beyond that first lump in my testicle. I regularly felt tired around dinnertime now, but on the first night my family was in town, I didn’t want to go to bed quite yet. My family has been an avid follower of Survivor, and they wanted to watch an episode. I made it about halfway through before I was too tired and had to go up to bed. Another surreal moment of “normalcy” that was skewed by cancer - watching TV as a family, only to be outlasted by my father (who normally falls asleep around 8 pm).

The next morning, I woke up and Thanksgiving was upon us. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because I love food and there is no pressure of gift giving involved. Although I wanted to get chemo started as soon as possible, I was glad I could have this meal first.

The feast was glorious, with turkey, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, rolls, stuffing, and piles of other delectable food. I stuffed myself fuller than normal, with the nagging reminder that food would soon be losing appeal to me echoing in my head. It was a different sort of Thanksgiving. Normally, we are with my grandparents and extended family in Allentown, PA, or Pittsburgh. However, once my port was put in, I was not supposed to travel due to the risk of infection.

Despite this mandate, I did get to join in for some of the extended family fun. On Thanksgiving Eve, my aunt and I set up a Google Hangout with my grandparents. She handed them the phone, saying, “Want to see a picture of Justin?”

I sat still, pretending to be a picture. After a few seconds, I sprang to life and said, “Hi Grandma!” They were tickled by it, and I got to talk to each member of my extended family. Despite my inability to be physically there, I was happy I was still able to be present in some way with them.

Up to this point in my journey, things had been moving very quickly. However, these 18 days were somewhat back to normal. I went to work (although I had to teach from a chair and used a cane). Friends visited (although it was a more tame visit than normal). I spent Thanksgiving with my family (although we weren’t with our extended family in Pennsylvania). It was surreal - on the outside, things appeared to be mostly normal. On the inside, I knew life was about to change in a drastic way.

To sum it up, it was 18 days of false normalcy.

This is the last post in the series. To continue reading my story, check out the Chemo Chronicle posts, which detail my chemotherapy experience.  

Monday, March 13, 2017

CC16: The Cost of Cancer


That’s nearly three years of my salary. Half of my mortgage. Roughly four new trucks. Approximately one-tenth of a wedding in 2017 (just kidding, but they are crazy expensive).

It’s also how much it has cost to defeat cancer over these past few months. That’s a crazy figure. Oftentimes, it’s said you can’t put a price on a human life. Essentially, now I can.

That figure doesn’t even take into account the gas money to and from the clinic, the fees from freezing my sperm, random food runs when the mood hit me, pharmacy prescriptions, and other miscellaneous comforts in the long journey that was chemo.

To be fair, all those prescriptions set me up with a
really cool medicine pyramid now. 
Luckily, I don’t have to pay the full amount out of pocket. I would literally have to take a loan out to do that. My bank account would barely put a dent in that, especially if I wanted to have electricity, running water, and food still. My insurance is covering the bulk of the bills and I am responsible for only a few thousand of that staggering figure.

However, I was not prepared to spend even hundreds, let alone thousands, of dollars on medical bills. (Before cancer, buying a house and planning a wedding were my financial goals for 2016-2017.) I have always been really good with money, saving, and budgeting. Even so, like most people, I didn’t have a line item for keeping cancer at bay. I am appreciative of the medical treatment I received, and I know it was a worthy cost.

However, all these bills pouring in, paired with the fact that I had to take thirteen unpaid workdays in February, causes me more undue stress. Part of me can’t get past the injustice of it. I didn’t do anything to cause myself to have cancer, yet I am still on the hook for thousands of dollars of medical bills.

I’m also not entirely sure what exactly I owe and to whom. My insurance company told me a set amount that would end my contributions to bills, but I received one bill from my initial surgery that was over this amount. When I called the insurance company to question them, they said that the claim had been improperly processed and I shouldn’t pay it. I keep getting bills for it, but I work through the business hours of the hospital and the insurance company and can’t call to figure out how much I owe. Becoming adept at bill paying and navigating automated phone menus is a skill I need to improve.

I hate asking for help and I never want it to feel like I am using ABSOT as a platform to solely benefit me in any monetary way. However, I am also a realist. I simply can’t afford to foot all of these medical bills by myself. There was a GoFundMe set up and both my former and current schools did fundraisers to help defray the costs and I am incredibly grateful for all of these contributions.

As I conclude this piece, I’m left wondering about those who do not have insurance. Would they be responsible for the full cost of treatment? That’s a wholly unnecessary burden on someone who doesn’t need it.

I am not a very political person, but I wonder what changes to the Affordable Care Act will bring to me (or other patients and survivors) if I ever need to change in insurance. Even though I am in remission now, I still need surveillance scans and follow up visits for the next year, which means more bills.

When talking with a friend in Australia, he said all bills are taken care of by the government. Wouldn’t that be a nice reality to have?

Although, I’m sure this comes at a price of having the risk of a dingo eating your baby.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

HBA15: Andi's Reaction

The staff at our school was called for an after school meeting the other Friday.  Anxiety was setting in as we checked each other for any facial clues to determine what this impromptu meeting was about.  After ten more minutes, a teacher started to tell us about “Justin” and immediately I thought he was killed in a car accident!  I am pretty sure by everyone’s expressions that many feared the same.  When she continued and informed us that he had CANCER, I personally kind of phased out.  My mind immediately went from “Good, he did not die in a car accident” to “this is only a slight step above”.

My experience with cancer is very fresh, as I lost my dad in August.  I saw first hand how quickly this dreaded word earns the fear it spreads when it is spoken.  At that moment, there was no fluffy optimism screaming that Justin is young and will beat the crap out of this!  Instead, my hearing got muffled, and visions of my dad overrode my thoughts.  My head was screaming that Justin is too young and that is far less acceptable than my father at 73 years old.  I am never known for my optimism, and the hands-on experience from this past summer did not help.  I “heard” that Justin had already come out of surgery that same day and was getting scans to see if it had spread.  I only thought of his new job, new house, and soon-to-be wife.

Disbelief was the first word of choice.  Fear of what news would come next was soon to follow.  Last, before leaving this meeting, was guilt over the lack of communication with my friend once this new school year had started.

Andi taught the third graders that I inevitably wound up with at my old school. We had a strong bond - that of masking emotions and ridiculing events we didn't like. I also threaten to kidnap her daughter on the regular.

Testicular cancer isn’t just affecting me; it’s affecting those closest to me. Every Saturday, one of my friends or family members will be sharing about their reactions to my diagnosis.  I hope these posts serve as a reminder to talk to the men in your life about performing regular self-checks and their health in general. Together, we can lessen the impact of testicular cancer. Check out Healthy But Aware posts here

Thursday, March 9, 2017

TBT15: The Next 18 Days (Medical/School Edition)

The span between my meeting with the oncologist and beginning chemo represented the longest period I would go without a major development (I hoped.) Within that time, I still had a lot to get accomplished: pre-op and placement surgery for my port, the chest CT scan, a lung function test, and a chemo orientation (which didn’t sound nearly as fun as college orientation.) Additionally, I would teach as many days as possible and would need to arrange medical leave and for a long term sub. On the surface, it seemed like it was going to be a pretty normal eighteen days.

On Friday, November 11th, Mallory had to work, so I was left home alone. I realized this was the first time I would be left alone for an entire day. Under normal circumstances, I enjoy my solitude and I was going to make the most of it...until I got a call to schedule my pre-op appointment for my port placement. The office was able to schedule me for the same day, so I drove myself there. At the office, there was an older woman who asked for a “hand sock” because her hands were cold. Little moments of humor like this made me smile. It was good to feel like life was back to normal, even as I sat in the waiting room of yet another doctor’s office.

Returning to the classroom also helped to restore a sense of normalcy and gave me an opportunity to be independent through teaching. I would be teaching Monday through Thursday and the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. On the Monday I returned, when I shared details of chemo, my students had about 45 minutes’ worth of questions. Some may say this was wasted time, but their inquiry was driving good discussion. I was able to dispel their misconceptions about cancer (no, it’s not spreadable). I was in pain from time to time during the school day from my incision, but it was manageable. I knew I was going to be cooped up in my house for a while, and it was empowering to do what I do best.

Probably the most memorable moment while teaching those few days was from "Charlie." He’s a student who works hard and mostly keeps to himself. "Charlie" took it upon himself to make me a care package. The attention to detail was amazing. He got me many Avengers toys to cheer me up, soap to stay germ free, a blanket to stay warm, and lemon drops. When I asked him about the lemon drops, he said, “When I was researching about chemo, it said sometimes it gives you a funny taste in your mouth. I was hoping the lemon drops would help with that.” The smallest gestures showed that the students were looking into my disease at home and that they truly cared.

Though most of the week continued as normal, on Friday, it became clear to me that this was a false sense of normalcy - a small break before the real battle began. That morning I had my port put in. (I explained the purpose of the port in CC01, which you can read here.) While I was put completely under for my first surgery, I was merely sedated for this one. I was actually talking to the doctor and nurses during the surgery. Aside from some slight discomfort, I didn’t feel any pain during the procedure. I was shocked, because they were threading a catheter into my veins. I would have assumed a degree of pain would have been associated with that. The sedation kept me nice and relaxed.

On Monday, November 21st, we had the chemo orientation with Nurse Practitioner Candace Sullivan. My mom went with Mallory and me to the orientation (she had come back and would be staying with us for the foreseeable future to help care for her little boy while he was sick). Chemo orientation was more similar to college orientation than I initially thought. We had my class chemo schedule explained, learned the rules and the side effects of binge drinking chemotherapy, got a tour of the campus chemo area, and met with the financial aid office accounts representative. Also, I got a free cup with the college oncology office logo on it!

After the orientation, I had another CT scan to establish more baselines. I arrived two hours early to drink the contrast dye, only to find out that there was no dye needed for a chest CT. Luckily, they were able to fit me in early, so I didn’t have to wait around all day.

When I left the appointment, I noticed I had a voicemail. My final baseline, a pulmonary function test, was scheduled for Tuesday at 11 am, which was to be my final day with my students. It was the only slot they had before chemo started, so I had to do it. I also knew my kids would be scared if I had told them I was there on Tuesday and then suddenly wasn’t, so I spoke with Brian and swung a half day of teaching.

In the morning of Tuesday, November 22nd, I had my pulmonary function test. One of the first things the respiratory therapist told me was that, “I would be sucking and blowing harder than I ever had before.” Essentially, the purpose of the PFT was to measure my lung capacity, power, and exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen. A potential side effect of chemo is lung damage, so this would provide a baseline to compare to after the treatment was over. I had to breathe in a variety of ways. “In, in, in, now out! Slower, faster, harder! In, out!”

"Charlie's" card
After completing the test, it was onward to my last day of teaching for 2016. I wasn’t sure how the kids would respond, but I was ready for anything. I arrived to find the half-day sub was thrilled with their behavior. She had nothing but positive things to say, which was great to hear. We came together for one last class meeting. I showed them my port (through my shirt, don’t worry!) and fielded more questions. Various students and families had sent in care packages, which I greatly appreciated. After lunch, we did a Breakout EDU box and then had one last read aloud. Finally, it was time for dismissal.

I was anticipating lots of tears, but there were none. A common refrain was, “Have a nice Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and chemo!” Each student said they would miss me and many gave gentle hugs. I truly think that the lack of tears were due to the amount of open conversation we had been doing over the past week. Their empathy and insight were well beyond their years. Truly, experiencing this journey together as a classroom family would teach them much more than any set of state standards would.

The medical tests and school side of things were complete for these eighteen days. I was ready to tackle the next medical obstacle - beginning chemotherapy.

On Thursdays, I am chronicling my journey from discovery to the beginning of chemotherapy. To read through my story up until this point, please click here

Monday, March 6, 2017

CC15: Everything is Normal?

October 26th: I was told I most likely had cancer
November 2nd: the cancer was confirmed
November 7th: I was told the cancer was stage II
November 28th: I began chemo
January 30th: chemo was completed

Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear
(Blonde up top, beard is dark)
These are perhaps the five most significant dates in my cancer journey. This past week, another date I won’t ever forget joined the above:

March 2nd: the day I was told I was in remission

Mallory and I met with Dr. Maurer in the afternoon to go over the results of my most recent CT scan. He began by pulling up my scans from November and comparing them to the scan from this past Saturday, February 25th. I am not a doctor, but even I could see that things had vastly improved. “Robin’s egg sized” tumors that lined my spine in November were now small specks. (These specks are normal sized lymph nodes.) My scans were clear - I was officially on the road to being cancer free. (No word on when I get my official monogrammed “Cancer Survivor” letterman’s jacket. That’s a thing, right?)

Hearing the words “you are in remission” was surreal. I wasn’t sure how to feel right then. Mallory was beaming from ear to ear, and my mom (via FaceTime) welled up with tears of joy. At that moment, I just wanted more details.

Dr. Maurer said that I would be tracked closely for the next two years, as this was the timeframe for the greatest risk of recurrence. I would have another CT scan in early June to confirm that there were no changes. Those scans would be compared to my “new baseline” scans from February. Changes would be tracked and closely monitored. If those scans were good, my port could be removed shortly thereafter. He wanted to make sure that my port was out well before the honeymoon in July, so I wouldn’t need to have limits on what I could do. A simple gesture, but it meant a lot to me. (We have plans to ride ATVs where they filmed Jurassic Park. I am not going to miss out on that.)

I'll pretend I know what any of this means
We discussed various other details. My hair (which is now a rich fuzz) will continue to regrow and should be back to its normal length by the wedding. (However, it’s coming in blonde. As my mom puts it, I guess I’ll find out if blondes really have more fun.) I would need my port flushed in April to make sure it didn’t get clogged up and cause difficulties for me. I need to be proactive in monitoring my health for any changes.

One thing that really resonated with me was that he advised me to seek counseling to help process everything and recommended a specific therapist. He said that oftentimes, cancer patients are more or less emotionally fine during treatment but face struggles in the aftermath.

I agree with this. While I was receiving chemo, my nurses and doctors told me what to do to be healed, and Mallory and my mom helped support me. My grandfather’s mantra, “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it” became my own. I had little time to react and process anything - I just had to act.

But now, I’m back at work. My hair and beard are regrowing. My cancer is gone for now. My energy levels and appetite are recovering. We’ve resumed wedding planning. From the outside, things look pretty normal.

Remission is a good thing, and I am happy about that. People tell me congratulations (although I don’t feel like I did anything worthy of receiving this) and that I must be relieved. I am, but it’s a weird mix of happiness, anxiety about the possibility of recurrence, and built up stress from everything that has happened.

My life had changed drastically since October. Things should be getting back to normal, but life has now just slowed down enough for me to begin processing everything that has happened.

From initial discovery to being in remission, it’s been less than five months. It’s a lot for anyone to process and handle in an incredibly short time frame, let alone a 25-year-old whose biggest concern before this was if he could stay up late enough to watch a Marvel midnight showing.

I’ve really had no time to process what has happened to me. Emotionally, I do not feel quite normal. Yes, I had three months off of work, but that was no vacation. It was spent allowing my body to recover and dealing with side effects. I don’t really feel like my body betrayed me or wonder why this had to happen to me, but I’ve also not allowed myself time to reflect and process this whole ordeal. It’s really hard to put into words, and it’s the type of thing you can’t quite understand until you experience it for yourself (which I sincerely hope you never have to do).

I am looking into getting counseling now and feel no shame in admitting that. I’ve been completely transparent with ABSOT and want to continue to do so. I will most likely not share exact details about what I discuss in counseling, but will share what I’ve found has worked for me in hopes of helping future patients.

I always try to mask my emotions and appear to be strong, but I know that this is not a time to do that. That might work when I am upset about the dishes not being done that evening, but it’s not a good way to handle a post-cancer transition back to normal life. As I mentioned before, I was in counseling in high school and it helped get me out of a bad place. I want to be proactive and not let myself get to that place again.

But despite everything, I still see a positive.. Cancer really put things in perspective for me. I can more clearly see what is important to me, like my personal relationships, and what really isn’t worthy of my time, thoughts, or energy.

Even though my body may be healed, my emotions are not recovering quite as quickly. The real work with that is only beginning, but I’m confident that with the support of those closest to me, I will truly be able to embrace the joy of being in remission.

I’ve completed undergoing chemotherapy to cure my cancer. Each Monday, I’ll post my thoughts on this experience. These may be reflections on my prior week’s treatments, musings about my newly-altered life, or anything else that comes into my “chemo brain.” Follow along with all of my posts here.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

HBA14: Maria's Reaction

“So I finally got the pathology back. It is cancer." Those are the words I read when I heard the news that my dear friend had cancer. As I sighed quietly to myself, I was thankful that they got it out quick. I thought, "This is Justin, he can't have cancer. He is way too young!" So he had cancer, and they took it out, other than a test here and there, DONE!

Of course, my positive attitude got shot down. I remember reading the two words: aggressive & spread. At first I was in friend mode. I was sad for him and I immediately prayed. Later, I selfishly I think, "Will another one of my friends die from cancer? Will his future wife be ok? Will his students be ok? Will his former students find out and will they be ok?"

Honestly, none of my selfish thoughts are important whatsoever. The most important thing I choose to remind myself is how important the positive attitude is. It is something that Justin and I bonded over. Quit the whining and complaining and be happy for what you have. If I were to lose another friend, shouldn't we be happy with the time we do have together now? If his future wife is not ok, she could reach out to her support system or even me. If his students aren't ok, they have a counselor at their school. If his former students need someone, I am here.

So while I can't fix all of the problems of the world, especially cancer, what I can do is keep my head up, pray daily, and be there for all the people I love. Breakdowns are necessary sometimes. Selfish thoughts will happen from time to time. Deep down I know that Justin's positive attitude will help him tremendously through this journey and my positive attitude will help me understand and be there for my friend who is fighting cancer.

Maria is the school counselor at my former school. We share a birthday (different years, though.) We grew close over the years, with me often coming to her with needs of counseling for my own life.

Testicular cancer isn’t just affecting me; it’s affecting those closest to me. Every Saturday, one of my friends or family members will be sharing about their reactions to my diagnosis.  I hope these posts serve as a reminder to talk to the men in your life about performing regular self-checks and their health in general. Together, we can lessen the impact of testicular cancer. Check out Healthy But Aware posts here

Thursday, March 2, 2017

TBT14: The Oncologist

While it was exhausting and painful at times, I loved every moment of returning to my students. When I came into the classroom the day after telling them, I saw that the students had hung up support posters for me all around the room. Questions popped up here and there about my diagnosis throughout the day, and I answered them to the best of my abilities. My students surprised me with a gift basket of treats to enjoy while I was undergoing my treatment. They made sure everything was all natural, so it wouldn’t react with my chemo. The compassion and attention to detail was amazing.

Towards the end of the day, I had to leave early for my oncologist appointment. For some reason, the GPS took me down Route 1 instead of I-95, so I was a few minutes late to the appointment. Not exactly a stress-free way to start an appointment that was almost guaranteed to be stressful enough. Luckily, it was delayed by 45 minutes so it didn’t matter.

After taking more blood and getting more medical history, we met with Dr. Maurer, who would become my oncologist for the next few years. Whereas Dr. Dumont was straightforward and had an air of confidence, Dr. Maurer gave off a vibe of comfort. Between the two doctors, I knew I was well taken care of.

Dr. Maurer reviewed some of the details we had discussed with Dr. Dumont. One lymph node appeared to be bigger than originally measured. In total, about 5 nodes were affected, with the possibility of more that were too small to see. He agreed with Dr. Dumont’s assessment that the lymph node removal surgery was not a wise idea and agreed that chemo was my best bet.

In my mind, before talking to Dr. Maurer, I had this appointment on Thursday and would start chemo on Monday. Apparently, it’s not that easy. Before that, I would need another CT scan and a lung screening for baseline screening. A port would be surgically implanted to make administering the chemo easier. Essentially, I would become a Chromebook and chemo would be a USB. It was a dream come true for this tech geek and Tony Stark wannabe. All of these procedures would be done the following week, which would be more time off from school before chemo even began.

We then discussed the type of chemo I would receive. Because I am a non-smoker, I could get BEP chemotherapy, which would lessen the amount of cycles I would need overall. If I had smoked at any point in my life, I would need a different type of chemo, which would need more cycles and other side effects. Maybe they should use that in anti-smoking PSAs! This type of chemo had the normal side effects - hair loss was likely, temporary infertility, and fatigue. Luckily, nausea medicine has advanced exponentially, and it might not be a factor. I may have a diminished appetite and funny tastes in my mouth, but I had no real dietary restrictions.

My chemo would be in three week cycles. In week one, I would receive chemo every day for a few hours. In weeks two and three, I would receive chemo treatments for one day per week and spend the remainder of the time recovering for my next round of treatment. I would go through three cycles, with an additional three weeks after for recovery at the end of my treatment. In total, I would be missing a minimum of twelve weeks of school. Even though I had researched chemo ahead of time, I was confused about how long a course of chemo lasted. I definitely wasn’t expecting twelve weeks (or more.) I knew I would need a long-term sub, which meant I was entrusting someone else to do my job. For someone who is as independent as me, this was hard to accept.

We chose to set my start date on November 28th - eighteen days from now. Finally, some time to breathe. That date was chosen to accommodate for Thanksgiving, and I was assured that this gap wouldn’t adversely affect my health. Initially, I was confused why we would be waiting at all. I wanted to get this party started immediately. After reflecting on this, I realized the chemo would wipe everything out anyways, so a few extra days wouldn’t matter. On Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday, they don’t have their own staff on hand so I would need to receive my chemo treatments at the hospital. Dr. Maurer said that the key to beating this was to maintain a rigorous and precise schedule (something I was sure I would come to appreciate) so he didn’t want to take the risk of holiday staff at a different location giving me the wrong meds. He also did not want me to travel for Thanksgiving because of the port and the increased risk of infection. If something went wrong, I would be stranded in a hospital hundreds of miles away from Dr. Maurer. I was sad because I was supposed to be going to my grandparents’ house in Pittsburgh and my grandmother makes the absolute best mashed potatoes. However, looking to make the best of it, Mal and I asked my parents come to us for the holidays.

After all of my questions about chemo were answered, there was still one area that still had a lot of question marks: what my role in the classroom would be throughout the duration of my treatment. The plan Dr. Maurer had outlined for me obviously represented a lot of time away from school, but Brian reassured me again that my health was number one. Later that evening, after I updated my friends and family, I sent a Remind message to my class sharing my chemotherapy start date and that I would be in school the next week for a few days. Parents and students alike were happy to hear that I finally had a start date and that I would be there for a few more days before I left. I hadn’t yet told them that I would be gone until February, but that was a conversation best saved for later, once my schedule was 100% finalized. I would be allowed to visit them in the third week of each cycle if I was up to it, and Brian and I discussed me teaching via Google Hangout. I would make further decisions once I determined how “sick” I would look during the chemo. While I would want to see my students and they would want to see me, I didn’t want them to worry if I looked scary or incredibly ill.

The weight of this imminent chemotherapy and exactly how life-altering these next twelve weeks would be dawned on me the next morning. Dr. Maurer said that I really had to avoid getting sick between now and chemo so my immune system wasn’t compromised before we even started. Since I had Veteran’s Day off from school, I wanted to visit my old school to see former coworkers and students. However, I decided to check with the secretary before showing up. During our conversation, it dawned on me to check with her whether any illnesses had struck the school recently. Lo and behold, many students were showing flu-like symptoms. Remembering Dr. Maurer’s strict instructions to not get sick, I decided not to go. I also realized I would need to sit out the EdCamp I was signed up for on Saturday for similar reasons.

While chemo would cure me, between limiting my travel and activities, the various side effects, and taking me out of school, it would definitely cramp my style for a while. Even for this low-drama guy, it didn’t feel too dramatic to say that chemotherapy would be life-changing.

On Thursdays, I am chronicling my journey from discovery to the beginning of chemotherapy. To read through my story up until this point, please click here