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.
A fun-filled day turned into a stressful night, followed by an even more terrifying morning when I felt a lump
Friday, Oct. 7, 2016 was field day for my fourth-grade students. It was a fun time, and I even participated in many of the activities with my students. The glory of capture the flag and beating my principal, Brian, in a tire relay buoyed my spirits. After the students let out, I had a flight to catch from my home state of Virginia to Kentucky for an educational technology consulting job, which would the first time I got to meet Donnie, who had been serving as my mentor for the past year. Between field day and the excitement of meeting Donnie, I thought it was going to be such an incredible weekend.
How wrong I was. I don’t often fly, yet 2016 was been the year I have traveled most. When I booked my flights, I chose what I thought was the closest airport. I was mistaken. However, I didn’t discover this until 10 minutes to departure at my gate in Dulles. Clearly, listening to an audiobook and chowing down on some Chipotle took more precedence over verifying distances. I discovered that the airport was 25 miles from my hotel and the hotel was 90 miles from the Bootcamp. Rightfully so, I started freaking out. Luckily, Donnie helped me to settle down and get arrangements made. I knew making it to the Bootcamp would require lots of driving, but in the end, it would be worth it. The weekend started looking up.
Just kidding! My luck only got worse in the morning. As I was showering, I felt a suspicious lump in my left testicle. I knew the routine for self-checks. They’re best done after a shower, when the scrotum is relaxed, and they’re pretty easy: just place your index and middle fingers under the testicle with your thumb on top. Firmly but gently, roll the testicle between your fingers. Any weird lumps or bumps should be checked out by a doctor. I had grown rather attached to my testicles over the past 25 years (well, they were more attached to me) so, as I stood there in the shower, I knew something didn’t feel quite right.
This wasn’t the first time I had felt it, either. In mid-September, in a similar showering episode, I had felt what felt to be a pea-sized hard lump. I thought back to my annual checkup (which I had neglected this year) and how the doctor always described lumps as something to take seriously. What I was feeling seemed to fit the bill.
I told my then-fiancé, Mallory, about it, and she started getting a little anxious. Rightfully so, since the prior year, she had gone through a similar scare after finding a lump in her breast. It shook her to her core, but luckily it was determined to be something other than a tumor and she had it removed. I was hesitant to tell her, as I did not want to bring back bad memories, but I did anyway. I undersold the situation a little bit and told her between not being sure what it was and my old health insurance giving me very little coverage, I would continue monitoring it, at least until my new insurance kicked in.
The following day, when I went to check myself again, I did not feel anything. Perhaps my skin had folded in a strange manner the prior day or maybe the lump had shifted in my scrotum and I couldn’t feel it anymore. Looking back, my decision to forget about my discovery for a while could have been because I was just being a typical guy — ignoring a symptom because “guys don’t go to the doctor.” Or maybe my uneventful health history caused me to be less worried. Either way, I didn’t feel anything at the time, so I apologized to Mal for working her up and put it out of my mind.
Of course, I thought of that moment again on that fateful October morning in Kentucky. This time, as I checked myself in the shower, I definitely felt something, and it was bigger than I remembered. Whereas in September, it was one small pea-sized lump, this felt larger. There also seemed to be more areas of concern. For lack of a better way to describe it, think of a jellyfish wrapped around a rock (or, for you sci-fi fans, a face hugger alien.) Now, just a few short week later, that’s what it felt like around my left testicle. I knew I couldn’t put this issue off any longer. My insurance had just kicked in, and I needed to make some calls.