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How Cancer Has Taught Me to Just Say No

Not just an anti-drug slogan, it's a phrase that describes how cancer empowered me to make the best use of my time. 
PUBLISHED July 24, 2018
Justin Birckbichler is a fourth grade teacher, testicular cancer survivor and the founder of aBallsySenseofTumor.com. From being diagnosed in November 2016 at the age of 25, to finishing chemo in January 2017, to being cleared in remission in March, he has been passionate about sharing his story to spread awareness and promote open conversation about men's health. Connect with him on Instagram @aballsysenseoftumor, on Twitter @absotTC, on Facebook or via email justin@aballsysenseoftumor.com.

Thanks to an orchiectomy, numerous scans, 10 weeks of aggressive chemotherapy, and more, I am able to put a price on my life. Three months of my life cost about $135,000, meaning the daily price for keeping me alive was around $1,500. To be quite honest, this is roughly ten times my daily salary as a public school teacher.

I'm not pontificating about the financial value of my life to haggle for a higher paycheck (although that would be nice – write to your congressman, please), but to illustrate just how valuable my time truly is. If I was handed a check for $1,500 every single day, I would not go spending that on things that don't have value to me.

Yet, that's what I did in the time before cancer. I can't even begin to tell you how many times I sacrificed my own time, energy, or effort in order to do something that really held no meaning to me. Whether it was work-related (which often could wait until the next school day), picking up the slack for a "friend" (who always seemed to be dropping the ball on projects), or anything else, I didn't spend enough time focusing on me and what was important to me.

Now, I spend my time doing what I brings me joy and meaning, including cancer awareness projects, reading, writing, cooking, exercising and more. One thing I don't do is spend my free time working on "work-related" projects, unless it brings meaning to me.

It comes as a shock to other fellow educators when I just say no to requests to help out with random tasks outside of working around. I care about my students and will give it my all during the school day to create memorable learning experiences. At the same time, I know how fleeting time can be and I want to use it on experiencing life as a whole person.

However, some people totally understand this feeling of pulling back. For example, I was on a committee about using social media to amplify the voice of an organization. I had been working with the group for a few years but never really felt passion for it. I finally decided to leave the committee this year. When the chairperson asked me why, I simply just said my heart wasn't into it anymore and braced to be berated. Surprisingly, the chairperson thanked me for my honesty and wished me luck.

This decision to have a "me-first" attitude also helped me advance in my career. For the past few years I've been debating a switch to a different role in education, relating to training others in the effective use of technology. I kept putting it off for other reasons – didn’t want to disappoint my co-workers, felt I owed it to kids to stay and more. This year, I took the plunge and applied. I'm happy to say that I earned the position and start in two weeks. Putting my own desires first helped me get what was the next best step for my career, and ultimately will have an even bigger impact on the students in my school.

Just saying no isn't limited to work. Even though cancer awareness is a huge part of how I spend my life, I even choose to say no to some opportunities that present themselves to me. I am passionate about testicular cancer, men's health, mental health, sharing your cancer story, and life after cancer. If I'm approached for something that very clearly doesn't fit into my mission, I firmly say no. My time and energy is valuable, and I want to invest it where it's going to make an impact.

There is another time I say no. Even if it does fit my cancer awareness passions, if I don't feel I can meet the expectations, I will politely share that I want to value their time and energy and I may not be able to measure up. Sometimes this causes me to lose out on an opportunity, but more often, it allows us to negotiate to find something that will serve both of our needs. It's a great feeling and strong start to a lasting partnership when both parties are equally respectful of each other's time and commitment.

Before cancer, I spent too much time saying yes. Now, after winning my battle against testicular cancer, I make it a goal to say no more. This sounds like a backwards way of thinking, but it's how I make sure I keep the ball rolling on making the best use of my time.

 

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