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.