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 email@example.com.
While most people dread chemo, I was oddly excited.
One month and 18 days since my testicular cancer journey had begun in October 2016, the first day of chemo finally arrived. While most people dread chemo, I was oddly excited — partially because it meant that an end was in sight and also because I get weirdly fascinated with new experiences.
The first thing I had to do was to numb my port with a cream the oncologist gave me. If you're not familiar with the concept of a port, it's a medical device that was implanted in my chest. A thin membrane on the opening allows them to administer the chemo drugs or draw blood. A catheter runs from the opening of the port and into a vein. The whole purpose of having it is so I don't have to get stuck with a needle all 21 times I receive chemo. The port is on my upper right side of my chest and feels like a little bump. It's not so much painful as it is just bothersome. Essentially, it is something that was surgically implanted and connected to my heart to help keep me alive. That's right - I am Iron Man.
I had to apply the cream an hour ahead of time, so it would numb the skin before I arrived. I wore a polo and a zip up hoodie so the nurse who would be administering my treatment could get to the port easily. No Magic Mike show for the other patients, unfortunately.
We arrived at the office and were directed to my own personal pod with the world's most comfortable chair. One of the nurses came by draw blood to run labs by accessing my port (and apparently the numbing cream worked, as I felt nothing when she stabbed me). She also took my vitals, which was a pretty customary practice for me by this point.
The labs came back, and they were clear. It was time to hook me up.
Over the next few hours, I was administered a variety of drug cocktails by Nurse Jenn (who would be my primary chemo nurse for all 21 treatments). Among these were a steroid, anti-nausea drugs, my chemotherapy trio of bleomycin, etoposide and cisplatin, and a liter of magnesium, to offset the cisplatin's tendency to drain my body of electrolytes. (For those of you unfamiliar with the metric system, go buy a two-liter of Pepsi. Drink half of it in an hour. That's how much liquid ran through my veins. Now buy another two-liter and drink the whole thing within four hours. That's how much liquid was in me total.)
Throughout all of this, I chatted with Nurse Jenn and some of the other nurses. Somehow, the concept of "making yourself throw up before your body chose to" was brought up, which led to us sharing college stories. What a great way to make a first impression.
Overall, the atmosphere of the chemo area was calm, with lots of beeping from the machines, gentle pop rock playing from the radio, and conversation between patients and families.
I got a chance to talk to one older man as he passed by. He asked how many treatments I had and shared that he was on his second to last. He recommended taking some anti-nausea meds as soon as I got home because, "that's always worked for me." A few moments later, a bell rang out. This signified an elderly woman had completed all of her treatments. Talk about duality - a young man begins his treatments as an older lady finishes hers.
My oncologist, Dr. Maurer stopped by to check in, review side effects, and chat about my baseline tests (which all looked good). He reiterated to my fiancée, Mallory, that cheesy Hallmark and Lifetime holiday movies would be just about the worst thing for my recovery. I added that I heard Christmas movies made prior to 1960 were bad too, and he did remember new research supporting this.
As I left the oncology office, I began feeling three separate, but distinct symptoms. I felt very sluggish in my legs yet jittery in my upper body. All of this was underscored by a little bit of queasiness. As I arrived home, I took a round of oral anti-nausea meds. I laid in bed for a while to try to regain some sense of normalcy. If this was just the beginning of nausea and fatigue, I couldn't imagine what I would feel like at the end of the week, which was when Dr. Maurer had projected that those symptoms would be at their worst. As I recovered, I couldn't help but drawing parallels between my situation and that of Cameron from Ferris Bueller's Day Off. I had skipped my job as a fourth-grade teacher in an elementary school and was now lying catatonic in bed.
Two hours after stopping chemo, my nausea had subsided, but it was replaced with a slight headache. My skin was starting to feel dry, so I applied lotion. As dinner time approached, I realized that smells were starting to trigger my nausea. A food delivery from my coworkers arrived, which included roasted broccoli and cauliflower. Under normal circumstances, I would have enjoyed eating both vegetables, but the smell was overwhelming. Instead of enjoying those along with the baked ziti, I decided to stick with soup and some Gatorade. After eating, I felt marginally better.
As the evening of my first day of chemo drew to a close, I found myself acutely aware of how my body was responding to the treatment. Though the hours spent hooked up and having a myriad of substances pumping through my veins were mostly uneventful (unless you call swapping college drinking stories with your nurses eventful), the evening after (and the subsequent symptoms) was less than thrilling. But underneath all of the discomfort I was feeling was a small sense of triumph: I was one step closer to being cancer-free.