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. 

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

PCL14: Stupid Cancer - There's An App For That

Back when I was first diagnosed in October/November 2016, I was looking for different ways to let people know about the new journey I was facing. While browsing, I found a leather bracelet that says “stupidcancer” on the Stupid Cancer online store. This bracelet spoke to me - I had wanted something that was subtle about my ongoing fight against testicular cancer, but also poignant enough to spark a conversation. Bonus points - I could wear it around my students and it wouldn’t be inappropriate.

Beard and bracelet game strong
My ABSOT partner-in-crime, Katie, bought it for me, most likely as a way to shut me up about whining about not having it. Ever since then, it’s been a mainstay in my wardrobe. Rounding out my wrist ensemble is my “SURVIVE” bracelet (why it’s not SURVIVOR is explained in this post) and my brand new “Carpe Scrotiem” bracelet (you can get one for yourself here).

After getting the bracelet and following them on Instagram, Stupid Cancer was one place where I started my journey in finding a community of cancer patients and survivors. I continued searching and I found “my people” is on cancer Instagram (or Cancergram as I like to call it). This community shares a special bond. No one gets cancer like other survivors and patients. I enjoy connecting with people with my ABSOT Instagram account, but I still found myself wishing to go deeper.

Imagine my joy when I was surfing Cancergram and saw that Stupid Cancer had just released a new app designed to match you with similar young adults facing cancer. I immediately signed up.

The intake questions reminded me of when I signed up for, although this one was a little more direct in asking about my private areas. The app asked about my relationship with cancer (whether I was a patient, survivor, caregiver or friend), as well as my type of cancer, staging and current status (in treatment or completed). It also recorded what treatments I had received, as well as more general information like my age and gender. In my profile, I found I could also add a mini-bio and customize an avatar. While browsing, I mistakenly thought one avatar was a person with blue hair, but it was actually a person with a blue bandana on.

After setting up my profile, I was presented with some matches, based on my intake info. My first couple of matches were men with testicular cancer, and further down the list were both men and women with different cancers, but of a similar age.

The first option to chat with someone is in the public chatroom, where everyone and anyone who is on the app can join in. It’s a constant stream of questions, answers, and shared experiences. Stupid Cancer hosts a formal App Chat every Wednesday at 8 pm EST. The first chat was all about how cancer can change friendships (a topic I am well-versed in) and other aspects of your life. The host, the owner of Lacuna Loft, painted a metaphor of you being the captain of your ship and deciding who gets to stay on and who is booted off. Hopefully none of us ever become actual captains on cruise ships, as many of us had some people we wanted to throw overboard (but also plenty in the captain’s quarters).

I hope Stupid Cancer eventually introduces some cancer-specific chat rooms. I enjoy interacting and reading others’ perspectives on the Testicular Cancer Awareness Foundation's Ambassador Facebook page and would welcome another forum for open discussion with other testicular cancer survivors and patients. My one stipulation - this chat room must be called “The Ball Room.”

The other way to communicate on the app is through individual, private chats. This is like sliding into someone’s DMs, without the Netflix and chill (do these references make me young and hip?). At the time of this post, I have talked with well over a dozen people, with all sorts of diagnoses and from different age groups. Cancer is typically the first discussion point, but it leads into other topics from there. Shout out to Megan who is also on Team TayTay (or Team Swifty, depending who you ask).

If you’re a young adult cancer survivor/patient, I recommend that you sign up. It’s free and can be a great tool to connect with other people who are experiencing the same things you’re facing/have faced. While the app is new, I find myself checking it as frequently as Instagram. Interestingly enough, I have connected on this app with various people I’ve also connected with on Cancergram.

While I was writing about the chatrooms, I found myself using the phrase “many of us” rather than “many of the participants.” To me, this shows how quickly I have come to enjoy this app and community and feel right at home at Stupid Cancer. I’ll still wear my bracelets proudly and hope for face-to-face connections with survivors, but I’m glad that Stupid Cancer has given me and other survivors one more tool for living a life affected by cancer.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

PCL13: eTC - Eradicated Testicle Counseling

Artist's interpretation if I was a therapist
Anyone who knows me knows I don't really like talking about my feelings to other humans. Frankly, I don't really like verbally speaking to other people (I prefer cats) but have no problem with digital communication or writing.

This is probably a big part of why traditional therapy didn't work for me when I tried a few sessions back in April. That, and I'm not sure what to do on that couch - do I lay down, sit up, or what? I usually settled for an awkward lounge position.

Don't get me wrong - my therapist was great and she gave me a lot of good advice. However, she had never experienced cancer first hand, let alone testicular cancer, which isn’t too surprising, considering she has even fewer testicles than me.

Despite stopping my in-person therapy sessions back in June, I knew I still needed to mentally process what I had gone through. Luckily, the Movember Foundation suggested I try a program called eTC Express, which I recently completed. I believe that eTC is an acronym for “Eradicated Testicle Counseling,” though it could just be similar in name to email. The best part? It's online and self-paced, so I don't have to talk to other people.

That being said, I don't want you thinking that the human element is completely gone from this therapy. It's not like I'm Matthew Broderick in War Games and communicating with a server somewhere. There are real people behind the scenes and woven throughout the program (more on this in a bit).

How eTC Works

Modules 1-4 overview
When you begin eTC, you take a pre assessment to determine your current needs. Since my biggest concerns were fear over remission, general anxiety in life, and difficulty relating to others (see above desire to just communicate through texts and email), I definitely qualified as a strong candidate for this program. (For more in-depth information, you can visit the FAQ page.)

There are six modules in total: Foundations, After Treatment, Changes, Being A Man, Significant Others, and Moving Forward. While some of the modules were more applicable to me, I still had access to them all.

Each module has a variety of tasks, with some reading of texts, videos, and audio files. The modules focus a lot on putting “tools in your toolbox” to deal with the new life you're now facing. Personally, I think they should have called them “skills in a sack,” but maybe their pun game isn’t as strong. Some of these tools include mindfulness, worry postponement, challenging unhelpful thoughts, and many more.

Overall, the modules were enlightening and helpful. I wish I had had some of the modules, especially “Changes,” immediately after finishing treatment. It dealt with physical changes and recovery, which is something that wasn't as important to me seven months post-chemo. eTC is something I would recommend to men at any stage of their testicular cancer journey.

My Favorite Parts of eTC

One thing I really liked about the program was when I was asked to respond to prompts. If you can't tell, I enjoy writing (and it’s a strategy that’s actually included in the “toolbox”). While the ABSOT posts go through various stages of drafting, editing, revision, and publishing, it was nice to be able to just write freely and deal with my raw emotions

At one point, I had to list what's important to me. Some things I would have definitely included prior to cancer didn't even cross my mind, which surprised me to see in writing. Rest assured, my cat, Conner, still ranked very high on the list (see aforementioned wanting to talk to cats).

Part of eTC is to evaluate your levels of distress every few modules. Mine are slightly higher than normal, with my one year of diagnosis coming up. A few days after indicating this, I got an email* from Dr. Ben Smith, who is actually in a number of the videos. He reached out personally to make sure I was okay and to offer his help. Even though he's halfway around the world, he was happy to offer his assistance.

That's probably something I should mention. This program is based in Australia and some things towards the end (regarding financial and legal business) are about Australia. I just kind of skipped through it. I really hope the Australian team does not take offense to the dingo joke I made in my cost of cancer post.

One of the videos in module six, with my favorite
Australian survivor, Matt
Another powerful piece of the program was the video interviews of Australian survivors. It was more than just their accents that made it compelling. (As a side note I love British, Irish, and Australian accent like most Americans. I once listened to Irish talk radio for three weeks in hopes of developing an accent. No such luck.)

There were five different guys with a total of four testicles (as far as I could tell one of them had both removed). Their stories mirrored mine - struggling with handling the transition back to work, dealing with expectations, and finding ways to restore a sense of self.

Separately, these pieces were helpful, but together they formed a basis of powerful counseling, a la a Voltron of ball-related help. Both sharing my own feelings and hearing the feelings of others helped to push me in the right direction.

Moving Forward

Module Six, Moving Forward, was my personal favorite. That's the point I'm in now - needing to move forward but not feeling sure of where to go. I've been grappling with this notion that cancer was a terrible thing, but also a great thing for me, in an odd way. This module specifically touched on it, which made me feel like I'm not alone in that reaction.

Modules 5 and 6 overview
Two quotes from this module really resonated with me. “It's reshaping what you think is normal" completely encapsulates my current mantra. My life is different than it was before cancer and is different than it would be if I hadn't ever been diagnosed. I had terrible work-life balance before and no clearly defined goals. Cancer helped show me the error of my ways and what’s important.

The other quote that stuck with me was "every time I lost something, I gave myself something back." While this does not mean I need to get a prosthetic testicle (especially since they don't make BB-8 shaped ones), I've found ways to improve my life to make up what I no longer have. I lost a friend, but found a community of support. I lost time, but I'm making up for it tenfold. I lost hair, but I grew it back (and got some sweet hats in the meantime).

eTC was exactly what I needed. While I wasn’t sharing my personal feelings to a living human while awkwardly lounging on a couch, the words and the testimonials from the other survivors articulated what I was feeling. If you're at a loss for a therapy program and don't think traditional therapy will work for you, I recommend you give this a shot.

However, if you get to the module that asks, “Shall we play a game?,” you should probably take a day off.**

* Dr. Smith asked me to include that “the website is currently being evaluated in a research study, so we’re asking a few questions of website users to help us evaluate how useful the site is.” These questions were brief and not cumbersome at all.

**for those of you counting, that's two Matthew Broderick references in one sentence.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

PCL12: I Lost More Than a Ball... I Lost Time

Something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is the concept of lost time. Compared to some cancer treatments that last for years on end, four months of surgery/treatment followed by an additional few months of feeling “off” during recovery isn’t too terrible. While I still continue to struggle with the emotional and mental ramifications of experiencing cancer, my life is more or less physically back on track.

This was once the bag I took to chemo...
Now it is my gym bag
Despite this, I have a hard time letting go of the fact that I lost nearly half a year of my life, especially a year that was supposed to be one of the happiest in my life with our upcoming wedding. While I don’t mind lying around watching movies for hours on end (such as later tonight when I watch Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 [for the third time]), I like doing that when it’s my choice… not because I have no energy to do anything else.

However, I am not simply dwelling on the time lost and doing nothing about it. I am making changes in my life and making the most of the time I have now that I am healthy. One of the biggest lifestyle changes is a renewed commitment to physical activity and eating healthy. Before cancer (can I just call this era BC?), I was really invested in working out during college. When I moved to Virginia, I kept up with fitness, but once I started my Masters program, I let my healthy habits slip. Though I finished my Masters in 2015, over a year prior to my cancer diagnosis, I did not make a sustained effort in restarting a regular exercise regimen. I would jog for a few days, but it never lasted. I always had an excuse… not enough time, no energy, etc etc.

After experiencing chemo and knowing what it truly feels like to have no energy, I am making fitness a priority (I promise this isn’t leading into a Beachbody coach spiel - I really hate those). I started with doing P90X (still not a Beachbody post!) but decided I needed to do more. I joined a gym and got a fitness plan from Estrella Body Architect, which is owned by the spouse of a survivor (and also has many great shirts available at Courage and a Cure). Sticking with my new habit hasn’t been too difficult. Because I’m paying for a monthly gym membership, it feels like I’m throwing money away each time I make an excuse not to use it, which is a motivator for me to stay committed. I am a few weeks in and am making it a goal to hit the gym every day.

On the topic of money, I am trying to let go of my frugality (or tightwaddedness as my wife says). In the BC time, I was very stingy with money, since I want to be able to retire before 80 and have a good life. Now, I know that life isn’t necessarily guaranteed and we should enjoy the time we have in the present. We went to Hawaii on our honeymoon, and I didn’t stress (too much) about the fact that some meals cost double what we would pay in Virginia. It was about the experience. Pouring money into creating memorable moments is something that is far more valuable than saving it or spending it on random items.

I missed Chris Pratt by six days :( 
The Hawaiian trip was truly that - the experience of a lifetime. I love to travel, and this trip was exactly what I needed. For two weeks, I did not worry about a recurrence or any of the other fears that plague my mind occasionally. We hiked up a crater, drove ATVs in Jurassic World (pictured to the left), swam with dolphins, visited Pearl Harbor, snorkeled in the reefs, and so much more. I embraced every moment of that trip. If you’ve recently ended the treatment part of your journey, take a trip ASAP. You’ve earned it. And if you want to pay me to come with you, I won’t say no.

My new attitude extended into my day to day life as well. Our AC unit died the third day back from the honeymoon and rather than repairing it, we had to replace the whole system, costing several thousand dollars. In the BC era, I would have freaked out about the amount of money we had just spent in Hawaii, but the new me shrugged it off. If I have this time now, I’m not going to worry about things I have no control over. You do not want to be in Virginia in August without air conditioning!

Beyond musing about the lost opportunities from the time when I had cancer , I’m finding I am having a hard time recalling what did happen while I was going through chemo and recovery. November through March is all sort of hazy. I can remember significant elements of the journey, but I can’t remember details here and there. Luckily, I wrote the majority of it down here on this blog and have friends and family to remind me. If you’re a current cancer patient, I recommend writing down your experiences. You don’t need to post it publicly anywhere, but you’ll want to look back and see how much you’ve overcome. They might not be memories that are exactly pleasant, but they are important and will help shape you going forward into your recovery.

Despite losing half of a year to testicular cancer, I look back at this time period to remind me of how far I’ve come and where I still want to go. So here’s to a continued resolution to grab life by the ball(s) and make up for lost time. We only have one life and we need to live it to the fullest (wow, I sound like such a millennial).

Monday, August 14, 2017

PCL11: Six Ways to Talk about Testicles

My last post was all about how talking about cancer can be awkward for those who aren’t experiencing it personally, but talking about testicular health as a survivor can be just as hard. I've also shared about some excuses guys may use to avoid doing a self-exam regularly. The topic of testicles can be considered impolite, even if it’s coming from a place of education. One of the primary goals of ABSOT is to get these “private” conversations out in the open, but that’s easier said than done. So to help, a la Barney Stinson’s Playbook from How I Met Your Mother, I’ve crafted various ways to bring up self-checks and testicles into everyday dialogue, based on some real life experiences.

If you want to go the extra mile, add it to your licence plate.

shirt courtesy of Courage and a Cure - go check out the link!

1. The Conversation Weaver

While mowing my yard a few weeks ago, I saw my neighbor gearing up to do the same. He's about my age, and we've only talked twice. We started chatting about my upcoming wedding and honeymoon. I said something to the effect of, “After facing cancer this year, I really need a Hawaiian vacation.” It was that easy to weave the topic in naturally. Knowing his age put him at a higher risk for testicular cancer, I segued into telling him to do a self check. He looked at me and said, "How? I've never even heard of that."

This anecdote is what sparked this whole blog post. While it was relatively easy to bring testicular health up in conversation, it proves there's still work to do with raising awareness. It's not enough to simply say to do a self check; men need to know how to do them too. I told my neighbor the steps: Place your index and middle fingers under the testicle with your thumb on top. Firmly but gently, roll the testicle between your fingers. Repeat on the other one. After sharing this, he actually thanked me, even though it was a semi-awkward third conversation.

2. The Carpe Scrotiem

I’m not sure if it is because I have become more attuned to news media about testicular cancer due to my personal circumstances, but it seems that more celebrities are speaking out about their testicular cancer diagnoses. In the past few months, several baseball players have gone on the record about their battles, and HGTV’s Taurek El Moussa from Flip or Flop shared that he overcame testicular cancer in 2013.

Use these celebrities to get a conversation going. See them on the cover of People or on the scrolling banner thingie on the bottom of the screen on SportsCenter (I don’t watch ESPN much)? Point it out and say, “I had testicular cancer, too. Do you know how important it is to do regular self-checks?” Whoever you’re talking to will now have two connections to testicular cancer - the celebrity and you. If you follow it up with a how-to if necessary, it will make that person that much more likely to keep up with their self-check schedule.

3. The Question

Stay strong, brother.
While on our Hawaiian honeymoon, our tour bus driver, Hanalei (Henry in English), asked my wife Mallory and I what we were celebrating. We said that we were on our honeymoon and also celebrating my good health. With a quizzical look, he asked, “Have you had some medical problems lately?” This question gave me a perfect opportunity to bring up testicular cancer, educating not only him but others who were also on the tour.

It turns out, he is a ten year stage 4 lung cancer survivor. I would have never known that if he didn’t ask the question. You might not always have someone asking you a question that segues nicely into a discussion about testicular cancer, but you can ask them a question about their health, if you feel comfortable. Sometimes, it might be as simple as asking after their well-being. After truly listening, you can then share your own story, making sure to include the relevant self-check information so that your listener can take action.

4. The Misconception Redemption

The morning of my wedding, one of my groomsmen said, “Can’t you get testicular cancer from getting kicked hard in the balls?” After berating him for not reading my blog enough, I told him that that myth comes from people realizing something is wrong after getting kicked down there.

I used this as another opportunity to yet again rehash how to do a self-check. There are a ton of myths and misconceptions (I personally like the portmanteau ‘mythconception’), and dispelling these can be a way to get a conversation flowing.

After discussing this with him, I gave him a swift kick… obviously to help him remember to self-check.

5. The Pun Game Strong

I'll never get sick of it. 
It’s sometimes hard to have such a stiff conversation, and it’s certainly not a ball to do it, but you would be a nut to not sack it up and do it. Don’t get teste about it.

One of the only good things about testicular cancer is that it lends itself to many puns and jokes. How many did you catch in the opening sentence? Hint: there are at least 5! Words related to testicular cancer all form perfect jokes. Bonus points if you have a pair of sunglasses handy and live in Miami. When I write my book, I’m sure there will be a chapter dedicated solely to testicular cancer puns. Find an opportunity and work it in- the humor will lighten the conversation enough so that you can get serious without making things too awkward.

Case in point: as I wrote this post, I was sitting in an airport. Apparently my carry-on was too large for the overhead compartments. The counter agent said, “Sir, can you check your bag?”

“Once a month, my friend. Once a month.”

6. The Blunt Approach

Of all my recommendations, this is my personal favorite. Why? It helps destigmatize talking about testicles (or TesteTalk...hold that thought as I run to the US Trademark office). It’s straight-forward and to the point. It helps make it acceptable to talk about balls in public.

For this approach, lead right off with a direct approach. Around when I was diagnosed and received numerous texts asking if I was okay, I countered with, “Have you (or your husband/fiance/boyfriend/brother/dad/grandfather/male robot) done a self-check recently?”

While it may have initially caught the person off-guard (especially those who were merely being kind by checking in), I had their attention. From there, I explained how to check. Directly connecting to my (or your) own personal experiences with testicular cancer can be much more powerful than a more socially acceptable but less helpful reference. Yes, this approach is blunt (I don’t think anyone would ever accuse me of subtlety), but it helps get those conversations out there, which is what we really need.

If you’re still feeling unsure about gabbing about your gonads, I’ll just say this to you: you survived testicular cancer, so you can survive a semi-awkward conversation that may help prevent someone else from having to do the same. Once you get the ball rolling, I think you’ll find talking naturally about testicular health isn’t a hard nut to crack.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

PCL10: How to Talk to a Cancer Patient

Cancer is something that touches thousands of lives, yet most people are at a loss for what to say to a cancer patient. Those with cancer can sometimes feel uncomfortable because of others’ words, even when it’s unintentional. Chances are, those speaking the words are just as confused by what to say.

This was on my mind as I browsed Instagram one day. While scrolling through cancer awareness accounts, I happened upon a post from Lisa from Girls on Chemo. Her post is to the right, but the essence of it is that she had been dealing with what NOT to say to people who have cancer, but she wasn’t always giving people what they COULD say instead.

I asked her if she would like to collaborate on a piece that would be useful to those struggling to find the right words to say to someone with cancer, and this is what we came up with as a rudimentary guide. As I’ve said in multiple posts, everyone approaches cancer differently. This is just our take on what we would have liked to hear and things that didn’t sit well with us as we were undergoing treatment.

Instead of saying...

It’s ok if you don’t really know what to say, but not acknowledging someone’s diagnosis does not provide them with any comfort. It also makes you appear as though you either don’t care or don’t know about the diagnosis, which is definitely not the message you want to send


”I’m sorry.”
Even though it’s often overused (like when you bump into someone in the grocery store), it’s ok to say you are sorry to hear that someone has cancer. Even if you say nothing other than this, the patient knows that you are thinking of them. Cancer patients might not want to talk about their diagnosis, and that’s ok, but if you express your sympathy, at least they know you have their back and will be there if and when they’re ready to talk.

Instead of saying...

”What caused your cancer?”
Most people (including doctors) don’t know what causes cancer. Asking someone who has been diagnosed with cancer what caused it or why they got it might make them feel as though they did something wrong or something to deserve such an awful disease. Even if someone was a smoker for 40 years and then got lung cancer, you should never blame someone for their illness. The “why” should only be something discussed between the patient and their doctor.


“Are there any symptoms I should look out for in my own body?”
Justin is happy to share the symptoms of testicular cancer and will often go into an in-depth explanation if he sees an opportunity. We want to spread awareness. Many cancers cannot be prevented, as in our cases, but early detection can help get someone on the path to being cured. Phrasing your curiosity about their diagnosis as a way to be proactive about your own health can lighten the weight of asking someone to delve into their medical history.

Instead of saying...

“Someone I know passed away from cancer.”
We understand that you want to connect by sharing your personal story of how cancer has impacted you or someone you love at some point, but sharing a story where a cancer patient’s outcome was not a positive one is not helpful or uplifting and can be a very damaging reminder to a patient who is already constantly contemplating their own mortality. While this seems like an obvious thing to avoid saying, Justin actually had a timeshare agent use this as a "selling point" on his honeymoon!


“I know someone who had cancer. Would you like to hear about some things that they found helpful?”
Nearly everyone has a cancer story, whether it’s their own or a close loved one. There is power in sharing information, and cancer patients can sometimes benefit from another perspective. By phrasing it as a question instead of imposing unsolicited advice, you give the cancer patient an opportunity to say no. If they say no, it’s not because they don’t value your opinion - we cancer patients are inundated with advice from everyone, from medical professionals to random people. It’s sometimes overwhelming, and we need to focus on what is working best for us.

Instead of saying...

”Let me know if there’s anything you need.”
Phrasing your offer to help this way puts the pressure and responsibility on the patient to reach out to you. This is stressful, especially when patients have so many things to do already. Many people are not comfortable asking for help, so if you leave it up to them, you may never hear from them or have an opportunity to help them for that matter. Taking action means more.


“I am going to do XYZ for you.”
Instead of asking cancer patients to contact you if they need help, tell them what you are going to do for them. For example, you might say that you are cooking them a meal and ask which day this week would be best to bring it over or bring them a frozen meal that they can use at their discretion. Call them and ask if you can pick up their child to take them out to do something fun. Drop off a basket of snacks and magazines. Organize a meal train (on websites such as or and get the community involved. Don’t just say you can help - actually help.

Instead of saying...

“You are brave.”
This seems like a kind thing to say, but many patients don’t know how to handle this compliment because they don’t feel brave. Lisa described this statement to her family and friends like this: If you were on a falling bridge and the only way to survive was to jump to the side, you would do it. Would you say that was a brave move? Or would you say that you did what you had to do to survive? Cancer patients have been forced into a situation that they don’t want to be in and must take immediate action. Anything that isn’t really an option doesn’t really seem brave.


“I can’t imagine how you feel.”
Simply put, until you have cancer, you do not know what it’s like to have cancer. Justin’s grandfather had cancer, but he didn’t know what it was like until he went through it myself. You can sympathize, but empathizing is difficult without going through the experience yourself. Recognize that, and cancer patients will respect that. Then, they may tell you how they feel. Listen when they do.

Instead of saying...

“Stay positive. I hear having a positive attitude helps.”
This can imply that the patient is not allowed to break down or have bad days. People need to work through a range of emotions when diagnosed with a major illness. It’s ok to be negative or to question. Furthermore, having a positive attitude will not cure cancer on its own. It certainly lightens the seriousness of the diagnosis, but it doesn’t actually help cure cancer. Also, it’s rare to find a cancer patient who doesn’t have a ‘positive attitude’ as best that they could. By insinuating otherwise, you’re being callous.


“I know always being positive can be hard. How are you really doing?”
As we said, cancer comes with some negative thoughts and bouts of sadness. These feelings are valid and should be valued. Recognizing this and being a source of comfort that patients can turn to if they choose to do so allows you to share in this range of emotions with the cancer patient. If you’re going to ask them how they’re doing, be ready to listen without offering your opinion. They may just need time to vent and share their feelings so they don’t have to keep it bottled up all alone.

Instead of saying...

“This is all part of God’s plan.”
This statement assumes that the patient is religious, which not everyone in the world is (about a quarter of Americans alone report that they do not affiliate themselves with any religion, and there are multiple other religions besides Christianity). Beyond that, cancer patients are experiencing rapid changes in their lives. Hearing someone talk about “God’s plan” has the potential to make cancer patients think that they were destined to get cancer, which is something no one should be made to feel, even if they don’t believe in a higher power. My best advice on bringing religion into a cancer patient’s life? Don’t do it unless you know for a fact that the person is religious and you know their specific faith. If you want to pray for them or think it is part of God’s plan, that is fine, but don’t assume the cancer patient feels the same.


“This is a tough time. I’m here for you.”
At the end of the day, this statement is an excellent one for almost any situation. It acknowledges that, yes, cancer is tough while also allowing the patient to know that you are there for them without pushing your feelings onto them. Using this phrase shows compassion, and this statement does it without bringing religion into it. Sometimes the best things you can say to a cancer patient are the simplest, and this is something we always appreciated hearing.