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.
My journey as a reader and a cancer patient/survivor were both marked with highs and lows, but now are important parts of my daily life.
The first book that I remember really getting into was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. I was 7 when it was released, and my parents bought it for me as a reward for scoring my first soccer goal in a real game (which would also end up being my only lifetime goal). My mom read it to me.
Though she made quite a fool of herself butchering the names throughout, I was hooked on both the wizarding world of JK Rowling and reading in general. Throughout the remainder of elementary school, I won numerous contests for most books and pages read in a year.
Then I entered middle school, where it wasn't seen as "cool" to be a reader. I stopped talking about books so much and eventually stopped reading for a few years entirely, lasting throughout high school. I remember bragging about skimming the Cliff Notes of Great Expectations for AP English — a far cry from my elementary school years of being a champion of the page.
Though I didn't want to admit it, I did keep up with the Harry Potter series in secret, often pilfering them from my little brother and shooting through them through the night. It wasn't until college, around the theatrical release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I in 2010, that it became socially acceptable to be a reader again in my circle.
I read off and on for the intervening years between then and 2015; I read a bit for pleasure, but most of my time was spent reading for my undergraduate and graduate college courses. Eventually, in August 2015, I wrapped up my master's degree and could dedicate myself solely to pleasure reading.
But as I've said similarly about my exercise habits in that era, I had a million excuses why I didn't want to read. Watching TV and playing video games was far easier. I began tracking my books in an effort to up my reading intake, but only read about 85 books between 2015 and 2016.
Then, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer in October 2016. The effects of chemo brain made it extremely difficult for me to focus on reading a book, so I eventually gave up. In an odd twist of fate, one of the last books I read was the screenplay of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a spin off from my beloved Harry Potter series.
As Cinderella (the musical group, not the world-class tamer of woodland creatures) once said, "You don't know what you got (til it's gone)" and I found this lyric to be true with reading. I had willingly given it up about ten years prior, but now all I wanted to do was immerse myself in a good book.
Eventually, I completed chemotherapy in 2017 and chemo brain had less of a hold on me. As I ventured back into the realm of reading, I found "easing my way" back into reading was hugely helpful. To start, I read books that were in the 100 to 150-page region and then worked my way up to a 250-page book (which was about Iron Man, so my inner manchild rejoiced). By the end of 2017, I had read 55 books.
In the beginning of 2018, I decided I would set a goal for to read 100 books by the end of the year. As I write the post, I have far surpassed that goal, reaching 166 books (and more to come in these final days of 2018).
I find myself drawn to books about other cancer survivors' experiences, such as First Survivor (a book about one child's successful battle against neuroblastoma), Here We Grow (one breast cancer survivor's outlook on life, which I reviewed here on CURE Voices), and Battle Courage (another book by another breast cancer survivor, filled with so many powerful nuggets of wisdom that I'll be sharing throughout the next few months). Other non-cancer related memoirs also find new levels of meaning for me. When I listened to the audio book After Words, a true story about a stroke survivor's journey, I found myself drawing parallels to my own experiences with cancer. Though the cancer types, illnesses, and conditions are different than mine, the lessons learned certainly mirror each other.
Of course, I also do read plenty of books of thriller, suspense, mystery, horror and other genres just for fun. Three new authors I discovered in 2018 include Jordan Vezina (author of the historical fiction Jericho Black series,) Jeff Menapace (a master of horror and suspense, especially in his Bad Games series,) and Joseph Lewis (the writer of six novels in one interconnected universe of crime books). I wish I would have known about these authors as I got back into reading after cancer, due to their fast-paced, straightforward, and engaging writing styles.
While I have devoured these and many other great tales, it's the sense of accomplishment and rediscovering my passion that keeps me going. If you're facing cancer and struggling to find the ability to read, I want you to know that it gets better. After all, you managed to get through 800 words about my own journey with reading! For the record, I did manage to rekindle my Harry Potter obsession in 2018, recently completing the screenplay of Fantastic Beasts: The Crime of Grindelwald.
Reading is such a precious (dare I say… magical) gift and I urge anyone not to let it go to waste.