But First... Let Me Take a Cancer Selfie

August 9, 2018
Justin Birckbichler
Justin Birckbichler

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.

How I leverage social media to raise testicular cancer awareness.

Testicular cancer is the most common form of cancer in males 15-44, according to the American Cancer Society, so I figured a good strategy is to go where they are to spread awareness. Since I've been banned from doing self-exam demonstrations at local gyms and the local mall security guards now know me by sight, social media was the next best option… at least until Zuckerberg kicks me off.

I jumped in and quickly found that raising awareness about testicular cancer through social media is trickier than using social media to promote discussion about education, which is something I was well-versed in from my pre-cancer life. While it's easy to get likes, retweets and comments on a fluff piece about using yoga balls in the classroom, not as many people are willing to share images of man balls — even if they are cartoon images.

To counterbalance this, I decided to focus most of my sharing of pictures of me turning everyday objects in testicular cancer-related props. Men, and people in general, don't want a clinical lecture — they want something funny that they can connect to.

Brussel sprouts were transformed into tools to demonstrate a self-exam. A “shelfie” with a line Andy Weir's Artemis ("Alright, Lefty, let's see how well connected you really are") became a way to reflect on my orchiectomy. Screenshots of my sister telling me not to wear my Fitbit in the shower since it doesn't measure "ball checking speed" served as a reminder to do a self-exam in the shower. A bag of peanuts that were marked as half-off… you get the idea.

These pictures usually get an adequate amount of traffic, but what gets even more engagement are pictures of me being "inspirational." A series of photos showing me from bald and bloated to fit with a faux hawk is the picture that has the most engagement over the past year — a year that's seen me speak to a group of nearly 250 college students at a world record attempt for the largest simultaneous testicular self-exam, conduct research about testicular exams at the doctor's office, write and produce a health education video about testicular cancer, and more.

This isn't to say that I don't appreciate the kindness of strangers; I definitely like attention and traffic on my page and social media accounts. But I do not do this work to earn fame for me and I certainly don't feel like an inspiration.

I want the attention focused on the testicular cancer awareness work I do. It's often frustrating to see these "inspirational" pictures trend better than real, cancer awareness raising efforts.

Nonetheless, I am committed to forging on. I'll keep at it, as I randomly find objects that are testicular related in everyday life. (Oh, look at this lone wiffle ball a neighbor's kid hit into my yard.) If my pictures and posts, whether they are ball related or inspirational, prompts one man to do one self-exam… then that makes an impact.