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.
Though it's a weird thing to say, I'm posting this to help you realize that if you "miss having cancer," you're not the only one.
I recently shared how October really screws with my mind, as it represents the anniversary of the beginning of my cancer journey. As I was putting the final touches on that post and reflecting on the ups and downs of survivorship, I found this Doc in my Google Drive. Back in May 2018, I wrote this piece about missing cancer. Somehow — maybe due to chemo brain — I never published it. I'm posting it now to help you realize that if you “miss having cancer,” you're not the only one.
I miss having cancer.
How terrible is this for me to say? Yet, it runs through my head a few times each month.
I feel like a horrible person when I think this. My mind goes to those who don't get to have this thought, since they unfortunately were fell prey to this beast that is cancer. My grandfather is one of them. I may say I miss having cancer, but I miss him more.
I know I had it somewhat "easy." My stage 2 testicular cancer was highly curable, my chemotherapy regimen was highly effective, and I was never in major danger of losing my battle.
I stop and think — why do I think I miss cancer? At first glance, it's an easy answer. For one, I didn't have to go to work. I literally had a three-month, paid vacation that couldn't result in me losing my job, thanks to federal laws protecting medical leave.
That time off was also incredibly structured for me. I did not have to put a single thought into any of my day-to-day business. My mom (my primary caregiver) woke me up and drove me to the treatment center. I sat in whatever chair was available. My nurses took over from there, poking me, giving me medicines, and telling me what to do. After that, my mom drove me home and made me lunch and dinner.
While nearly half of each day was spent in a chemo chair, the evenings were mine and I could do whatever I wanted to do. Essentially, having cancer was being like a kid again.
But… was it really that great, if I think about it beyond face value?
I could rarely get comfortable enough to sleep, because I was either too hot or too cold — and I'm not even Katy Perry.
Sleep was out of the question, because the steroids either kept me awake or the other medicines screwed up my sleeping schedule. While sleeping meds sound fun in theory, foregoing natural sleep for months isn't a great way to rest. Due to lack of sleep and other side effects of chemotherapy, I had near constant fatigue.
On top of that, the five-day stretch of constant vomiting wasn't fun and nor was the immense bone pain from re-growing my white blood cells. Even though my mom was making me food, I didn't even want to eat and when I did, it didn't taste good. Light and smell sensitivity wasn't great either, but at least I had my looks!
Oh wait, my hair fell out. I gained weight. I looked extremely bloated. I didn't even look like myself. That guy in the mirror was a shadow of my former self, and that wasn't even due to missing a testicle.
So maybe physically, it wasn't fun, but mentally it must have been a blast, right?
After all, I had a ton of free time to watch movies, but I couldn't really focus on them due to the effects of chemo brain. I couldn't read because it was frustrating, again due to chemo brain. I couldn't watch movies or read — two of my favorite activities, so maybe the grass isn't as green as I remembered.
I'm grasping at straws here now, trying to remember why I would possibly think I miss cancer. Even though I had time off work, I found myself wanting to go back since I missed working with my fourth graders. I came to hate being told what to do. I love my independence and didn't enjoy relying on others.
Scanxiety, depression and worrying about recurrence is the toughest part of being a cancer survivor, so maybe that's it - not having all of that emotional baggage is what I miss about being a cancer patient. Although now, when I have a worry (such as a few weeks ago), I call my doctor, have an ultrasound or scan the next day, and get near immediate results. While the overarching depression may take some time to heal, having the ability to have instantaneous reassurance that I'm physically ok is a definite upside.
It's not like when I had to wait a grueling month to see if chemo was effective. I remember breaking down into tears thinking that treatment wasn't successful, and I would have to do it all over again.
Even though I now think that I miss having cancer, if I'm being honest with myself, while going through treatment, it was the opposite. I recall thinking, "I miss not having cancer."
I missed being able to do what I wanted, when I wanted (on weekends and after work, of course). I missed making my own schedule and own decisions. I missed natural sleep. I missed reading. I missed eating food and enjoying various tastes. I missed having energy (and the ability to withstand smells) to be outside and play with my pets.
I can do all those things now, and more. I've read more books from January to May than I did in all of 2017. I've apparently walked over 250 miles since March, according to my FitBit. I've lost the chemo weight and found my hair again. I sleep through the night on my own (at least until my dog comes to wake me up at 5 am, but at least her smells don't bother me anymore). I've prepared and sampled numerous new dishes. I've amped up my testicular cancer awareness efforts. My time is my own and I choose how I want to spend it.
Sure, survivorship has its own challenges, but I need to remind myself not to take my eye off the ball. While cancer changed my life and taught me some important lessons, I've been given a second shot at life, complete with a new outlook. I am healthy. I am happy. I am me.
Now that I've written this all out…
I do NOT miss having cancer.