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.
Compare it to needing chemo for cancer or a cast for a broken arm. You wouldn't say no to either of those, but why are people hesitant to try care for mental health?
In December 2017, I had another follow-up scan after a successful treatment of testicular cancer and met with my oncologist to go over the results. I got to the office and checked in with the friendly receptionist team who greeted me every day last year. After being taken into the exam room and having my blood pressure checked (which wasn’t very high, surprisingly), I was told Dr. Maurer was coming from the hospital and would be a few minutes late. That was fine, as I needed time to collect myself.
As I waited, I noticed that the touch screen billboard in the office said, “Treating cancer doesn’t have to be stressful.” I agree. Treating it wasn’t too stressful. Surviving it is.
Eventually, Dr. Maurer came in, clad in a green shirt and red tie. The first words out of his mouth were, “The scan looked good. You’re still in remission.” He must have known I needed to hear that.
The result of the scan was only one of the main reasons I was anxiously awaiting the meeting. While my physical healing has more or less completed ended, my emotional healing still has a long way to go.
I suffered from severe clinical depression in high school. The extent was pretty brutal, but I ignored the signs and let it progress to a stage I wish I hadn’t. Recently, I realized I was experiencing many of those same feelings now:
And many more signs that have come and gone throughout the past few months. Since I am almost 10 years older than I was in high school, I realized the warnings and knew I didn’t want to get to the point I was at when I was a teenager.
Knowing that having depression at a young age puts me at risk for a recurrence later in life, I decided to look into research about cancer survivors and PTSD/depression to fully understand just how stacked the cards were against me. It didn’t bode well when I first typed “cancer survivors and…” into Google, and “PTSD” and “depression” popped up as the first two suggested results (followed by “alcohol”).
As I researched more, I found this study from 2017 that said about 20 percent of cancer survivors experience PTSD symptoms within six months of diagnosis. The CDC also reports that cancer survivors take anxiety and depression medication at almost twice the rate of the general population.
So I asked Dr. Maurer for antidepressants. He agreed to prescribe them, and I began the next day.
However, about four weeks later, I felt no different. I knew antidepressants could take up to six weeks to show major changes, but I wasn’t feeling even slightly better. Perhaps I even felt worse, as I had these “happy pills” and I still felt down. Maybe something was just wrong with me - beyond the missing testicle.
I’ve learned to be open with my health and feelings, so at my med check up with Nurse Practitioner Sullivan, I basically said, “Hey, I don’t think these are working.” NP Sullivan listened and decided to increase my dosage.
After being on this increased dose for a few weeks, I noticed that work, exercise, writing, reading, and cooking were more enjoyable. I haven’t started any sort of formal therapy program, but I know that is definitely recommended while on these pills.
My biggest takeaway from this all is to ask for help if you feel you need it. There seems to be such a stigma around mental health and this post is an effort to be open and transparent to help dispel it. Sometimes, mental health isn’t even viewed as a necessary thing to take care of or treat as a serious matter. We treat our bodies and help them to heal when we are sick or injured; why should our mental health and brains be different?
I recently saw a Tweet that said, “Depressed people don’t need Prozac. They need running shoes and fresh air.”
That’s a damaging narrative. I tried that, and continue to exercise, but it wasn’t that simple for me. If that’s your opinion, fine. Go run or whatever else works for you. But don’t shame other people for trying what might work for them. Just as I’m not going to fault you for trying homeopathic medicine, don’t go throwing crystals at me for what I’ve chosen. Positive thinking just isn’t enough sometimes.
I’m not beneath asking for help and this is the help I need. I know from previous experience that I respond well to these medicines and they help balance me. On my drive home from the December appointment, I asked myself, “Is taking these pills a cop out?” Honestly, I didn’t have an answer at the time.
A few hours later, I found my answer. It’s not a cop out. The pills are not going to be the only way I find happiness. Writing helps me process. The gym keeps me healthy, inside and out. These pills will just be another tool in my toolbox for helping me to maintain a positive outlook, which is something I have struggled with since the end of chemo.
If I’ve ever felt brave along this journey, it’s now. I’m asked for help and advocated for my own needs. It’s a step in the right direction to putting me back onto a path of happiness.