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 email@example.com.
I blended my career as an educator with my passion for testicular cancer awareness.
Looking to access the PSA immediately? Click here to watch the video.
Part of being a fourth-grade teacher (my full-time job for the past five years) is the dreaded end-of-year "your body is going to start changing" talk. While I can talk to adults about balls until I'm blue in the face, it's hard to switch from teaching 10-year-olds about factors to penises (although both are used for multiplying).
After completing my yearly lesson, I started wondering if the Virginia health curriculum includes education about testicular self-exams. I did some research and found that self-checks are only explicitly mentioned in one standard in 9th grade: "The student will demonstrate understanding of specific health issues, including the ability to conduct self-examinations." It's indirectly mentioned in 10th grade: the student will "identify regular screenings, tests and other medical examinations and their role in reducing health risks."
In my opinion, these passing mentions are not nearly enough. Doctors recommend that both testicular and breast self-examinations are done once per month when full physical maturity is reached. For some students, this could be as young as 15 years old. During their 11th and 12th grade years, Virginia students are not exposed to any information about the importance of self-examinations, which is when most students will have reached full maturity. I think these current standards are not enough. It's unrealistic to expect students to form the habit of regular self-exams based on one passing mention in 9th grade. This reality is even more alarming when paired with a 2016 study by the Testicular Cancer Society that found over 60 percent of young men have never been told about testicular cancer. Something needed to be done.
As a man of action, I decided to write to the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) to express my concerns and to work with them on a solution. Within a few weeks, Vanessa Wigand, the VDOE Coordinator of Health Education, Driver Education, Physical Education & Athletics, emailed me back. She suggested that I script and star in an instructional video about testicular cancer and the importance of self-exams. Furthermore, she suggested having high school film department students film, edit and produce the video. I loved that idea, especially the part about having high school students assist, as they are a part of the target demographic I'm trying to reach.
In early April, I filmed my sections at a local high school, including my own story, information about testicular cancer, and narrating an animated self-exam demonstration. Beyond the coolness factor of being on camera, I loved seeing the three male students show expressions of intrigue while I shared some facts about testicular cancer. Later, when I spoke with one of the students, he said he had previously heard about testicular cancer but never knew exactly how to do a self-exam before filming. Mission accomplished.
Rather than tell you about their awesome work, I'm linking to the final product here. While it is 11 minutes long (practically decades in this era of YouTube), it's well worth the watch!
I had a chance to debut the video at the Virginia Health and Physical Activity Institute. In two sessions, I provided statistics, tips and other information about testicular cancer to a number of health educators and curriculum coordinators. The attendees seemed to enjoy the video and especially liked that it was a comprehensive resource that covered all the bases, with a great blend of personal stories, information, school-appropriate humor and an animated self-exam demo. Many eagerly asked where it would be located so that they can use it in their own districts.
Vanessa happened to be in the session and said that the video is going to be posted on Health Smart Virginia, which is an online depository of lesson resources. She also said she will send it directly to all health curriculum coordinators across the state, which will hopefully help the video become regular viewing material for all high school grades.
While I am honored to have made an impact on Virginia's curriculum, I always want to have as big of a reach as possible when it comes to testicular cancer awareness. In the 50 states of the US (and Washington, DC), only 18 states make a specific mention of testicular self-checks in their mandated health curriculums. Of these 18, only two states (California and Washington) include standards that address how to do a self exam in grades 9-12. Consult this map to see if your state made the cut or not.
If your state has room to grow, please send this blog post or the link to this educational site (which is also posted on Health Smart Virginia) to the relevant parties in your state. I personally plan on reaching out to the "Vanessas" of each state in hopes to make this a national project.
In closing, I would like to offer a sincere thank you to all of those who helped support this project. Many parties came together to put forth the effort to produce this video, and now the ball is in your court to watch and share this video.
Together, we can get the ball rolling on educating high school students on the importance of testicular self-exams.