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.
In April 2017, I thought I felt a new mass in my remaining testicle, but it ended up being clear. In May 2018, it happened again... but this time, it was different.
About a year ago, in April 2017, I experienced a scare in which I thought I had discovered a new lump on my remaining testicle. Even though it was in the middle of spring break from my job as an elementary school teacher, that was not certainly not a ball of fun.
I should have been more rational and realized that it was only approximately six weeks after being told I was in remission, and chemo was possibly still exiting my body, which would inhibit any new tumors from growing, but I'm also not a doctor, so I'm not sure if that's true. However, even if I were a doctor, I wasn't in a good frame of mind then.
To make a long story short, they did an ultrasound of good ole Righty (a balltrasound, if you will) and it came back negative. My urologist essentially told me I was being hypersensitive and to "chill out, brah" (my words, not his). Since this was the man who literally took one of my balls away (and could probably take the other just as easily), I decided to heed his warning.
I still remained vigilant and did self-exams regularly, but nothing seemed amiss… until May 2018. I was showering and felt what seemed to be a lump on my right testicle. A few days later, it was still there. A few thoughts immediately flooded my head.
My first thought was, "Wow, you just found a new lump in the shower and that first lump was found in the shower. You should avoid showering." After pondering the effect this would have on my overall hygiene, I decided that this wasn't a stable plan.
Next, I began thinking, "Justin, are you being the Boy Who Cried Wolf?" This same thing had happened nearly a year ago, and I was quickly approaching my 18-month scans. Around scanning time, I usually experience increased anxiety, also known as scanxiety. Maybe these factors were causing me to think that something was wrong, even if it weren't.
Finally, I wondered, "But what if you're not being paranoid this time? What is this is go time again?" I know about two in every hundred testicular cancer survivors have a second episode, and I'm not foolish enough to think I'm above the law. I also grappled with the fact that I'm constantly telling guys to take their health seriously and I didn't want to just brush this off.
I decided the best thing to do was stop talking to myself and reach out to one of my friends who is a double testicular cancer survivor. Still wet from the shower, I asked Siri to send him a text asking if I could call him in a few minutes to discuss something important. He called immediately, and I said I needed to call him in a few minutes since I was still dripping. I've got to hand it to him — he was on the ball.
After I had dried off, I called him back to discuss what I was feeling — physically and emotionally. I asked him about his recurrence and his recommendation. He's also not a doctor (note to self: befriend a doctor) and he said I should just call my doctor to ask.
I gave my oncology office a call and my medical team agreed another balltrasound was in order. If this were a Spielberg film, there would be a montage of jump cuts of phone calls, driving to the medical imaging center, the tech leading me to the room and then leaving to give me privacy, me dropping my pants and wondering why I needed privacy for that when she was gonna be in there looking at my ball anyways in a second (a thought I had on my very first ultrasound in October 2016), her squirting gel onto the wand, pausing for a moment, and thankfully swapping it for the heated bottle instead of the cold one.
We talked throughout the procedure and I shared how I was not sure if I was just being paranoid. She agreed that I was doing the right thing by being vigilant and there is no harm in getting an ultrasound done every six months. When she was finished she looked at me and said, "if I saw anything on the scan that concerned me, I would go talk to the doctor right away.... But I don't see anything so you're free to go."
That simple statement definitely helped me relax. The following day I got a voicemail from my oncology office saying that the scan did indeed come back negative. I had confirmation; there was nothing to worry about.
Looking back, I am semi-impressed with myself in how much better I handled this than the last April. Perhaps this is just part of becoming a more experienced cancer survivor or maybe deep down I knew that nothing was wrong, even if I wasn't sure of it on the outside. Nonetheless I'm happy that I decided to make that call to get a scan of my ball and get proof that everything was okay.
Now I just have my 18-month scans in June to look forward to and then I can hopefully put any fears out of my mind until December, which will be my 24-month scans. As I navigate through this rollercoaster of cancer survivorship, I do know and recognize that worrying is part of life. By leaning in and embracing it, I was able to handle this episode without too much anxiety, worry or adverse effect on my mental well-being.