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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hair loss due to chemo can still be traumatic even for men, but shaving it off taught me a surprising lesson.
I moved the Chia Pet of Uncle Si from Duck Dynasty off the edge of the tub so I had a place to sit. I had been neglecting watering it in the past few years, and now it appeared that all of the plant growth that made up his beard and hair had died.
"You and me both," I murmured to the terracotta structure (and then immediately thought how ridiculous I was talking to a small statue).
It was Saturday morning, and I was preparing to shave my head. My hair had been thinning since the end of the first week of chemo, but I hadn't been ready to shave it yet. I wanted to wait until it was coming out in chunks and was noticeably thinning.
About two weeks later, I woke up and went to the bathroom to apply deodorant. I noticed the top was covered in armpit hair. I immediately put a hand to my head and brought it down. It had finally happened.
This sudden exodus of my hair from my follicles was paired with finding out that my white blood cell counts were now low at a doctor's appointment later that day. This meant my immune system was compromised. When I think of cancer, I think of bald people with low white counts. It was the first time I considered myself a "real" cancer patient.
Oftentimes, we hear of female cancer patients mourning the loss of their hair, but don't often hear the perspective of men. I suppose this is due to the fact that men are "allowed" to have a bald hairstyle, and many men eventually do go bald. I mercilessly tease my bald grandfather and my balding father about their lack of hair. (Looks like I was about to beat my dad to the punch.)
Just because I am a guy doesn't mean my hair isn't important to me. Watching my hair fall out brought back a flood of memories about the impact my hair has had throughout my life.
At the end of high school and during the first year of college, I had what could best be defined as a "skater" haircut. This had nothing to do with my skateboard prowess (there was none) and more to do with the fact that I had really low self-esteem. I simply didn't care what I looked like, because I did not like myself very much. After a nasty breakup towards the end of my freshman year of college, I decided to cut the long style and go with a faux hawk.
The physical change helped my personality change drastically. I felt more confident and began to like myself more. As my self-esteem grew, my social circles expanded, and I made more friends. The haircut played a role in helping me define myself and accept myself. I finally liked myself. Looking back, it seems silly that this was a catalyst for change, but changing my hair helped me discover the best me.
This style stayed with me for the next six or so years. My confidence is not based on my hairstyle anymore, but I don't feel like my full self on days I don't gel it up. And now part of my identity was being taken from me against my will.
I decided I wouldn't let cancer completely control my hair loss and would shave it off myself. Perhaps it was a symbolic way of proving to high school Justin that I am more than my haircut. Perhaps it was me wanting to show that I am still in control of my life. Maybe it was also just the curiosity of shaving my own head.
The hair kept falling out. Just by running my hand through my hair, I'd come away with a handful of my own hair. I'd wake up each morning to a light dusting of hair on my pillow. Showering was even worse. By the end of two showers, it looked like a dead rat was on the floor — and that was only the hair that didn't get washed down the drain.
Finally, it was time. I assembled my tools: hair clippers, my beard trimmer and a variety of razors, including one that looked like a racecar. I was a modern-day Sweeney Todd.
The actual shaving took about 90 minutes from start to finish. I used clippers to buzz down to the skin. I took off my beard with the trimmer and then went over my whole head with the razors. Doing the back of my head was ridiculously difficult and had to use an elaborate system of mirrors to see it.
Finally, I unplugged my tools, rinsed my razors and took a shower. I was now part of the Bald Brethren.
My first thoughts on seeing myself newly shaven? "Wow, it's really cold in here." This was quickly followed by, "Geez, I look like I'm twelve."
To be quite honest, I didn't feel any different, nor did I look too significantly different. I know without facial hair, I looked younger, but I wear a beanie through most winters anyways.
Yet, it was a lot less emotionally painful than I anticipated. I would have still preferred to have hair, but I'm not devastated. This surprised me, because I was honestly expecting to cry after doing it.
I chalked it up to a win against both cancer and my old fragile sense of self-esteem. This exemplifies to me how far I came in the confidence department. 19-year-old Justin would have probably broken apart seeing my hair lining the bottom of our tub, but 25-year-old Justin was stronger. I no longer needed a physical sign to know who I am or to build me up.
I am Justin, and this was just one bump in the road on the way to beating this cancer.