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.
These four lessons about what comes after cancer are truly powerful.
A few weeks ago, I attended the Young Adult Cancer Conference in Bethesda, MD. I had the opportunity to attend three amazing breakout sessions (including sessions on living with cancer's uncertainty and advocating for cancer action) alongside many other young adult cancer survivors and patients.
In this session, led by Erin Price and Julia Rowland, Ph.D. of the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts, we learned four lessons about how to thrive in cancer's aftermath.
Lesson 1: Making the transition to recovery is stressful.
As many cancer survivors can attest, active treatment is among the physically toughest periods in your life. However, what comes next — survivorship – can be much more emotionally and mentally taxing.
Hearing you’re in the all-clear does not mean that everything is back to normal. A whole new host of problems arises: concerns about ongoing monitoring, loss of a structured, supportive environment, problems with “re-entry” into normal society and diminished sense of physical well-being due to treatment effects. Yet, these all pale in comparison to the biggest stressor: fear that the cancer will return (or developing a new cancer).
To help with that final concern, Erin and Julia recommended a two-week rule. If something pops up as a concern, whether it's feeling a new lump or noticing a symptom, track it for two-weeks. If the situation hasn't improved, contact your doctor. Be your own advocate in getting in to see them; you know your body best.
Lesson 2: It's not over when it is over!
To continue from lesson one, the two women noted that the post-treatment/survivorship phase of cancer brings its own set of unique needs. Among these are physical/mental, psychological, social/economic and spiritual changes. Whether those changes are positive or negative, the vast majority of cancer patients experience them in one or more (if not all) of these domains.
Recognize that it's never truly over. Changes are normal, necessary and to be expected. Lean in and realize that it's all part of your "new normal."
Lesson 3: Planning for recovery is important.
While going through active treatment, a patient has every moment scheduled for them by their medical team. I literally had minute-by-minute breakdowns of my infusion schedule. However, aside from regular follow ups, this meticulously planned care often stops when you ring the bell.
Erin and Julia shared the ASCO Survivorship Care Plan, which is a comprehensive plan for before, during and after active treatment. One side of the document contains information about what treatments were had, and the other has plans for the future, including various resources. Share this resource with your doctor or ask if they already have something in place.
Lesson 4: Cancer for many may provide an opportunity for life-affirming changes.
The often overlooked silver lining of cancer is how many positives can come out of facing your own mortality. If you've ever needed a fire lit under you to make positive changes, the aftermath is one of the best catalysts for prompting you to act on them. Erin and Julia shared that many people make various fitness and lifestyle changes, which has the added benefits of reducing cancer risk in general.
Look for those small moments of glory that can come out of a cancer diagnosis and work to improve your life after facing one of life's most difficult journeys.