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.
Only a 20-something cancer survivor could re-imagine his port removal procedure as a deleted scene from the Avengers.
Iron Man, The Hulk, Spider-Man and Thor: Earth's Mightiest Heroes. Brought together by one common thread, to defeat the ever-looming threat of the galactic plan of conquest by the evil villain Thanos.
However, on Wednesday, June 21, 2017, these heroes came together to remove an even bigger nuisance: my chemo port.
A week and a half earlier, I met with Director Fury (my oncologist, Dr. Maurer) at SHIELD Headquarters to review my latest mission report. After another successful scan, he said I could get my port out if I wanted. I did. The port was annoying, itchy, uncomfortable and painful when Tobi or Conner (our puppy and cat, respectively) jumped on it or when a student hugged me.
The surgery was scheduled, and I took the Quinjet to the hospital. After greeting me, a kind attendant walked me to a waiting room and I waited.
Finally, it was time to begin the procedure. Two nurses wheeled me into another room and hooked up an IV, took my vitals and ran through my medical history. The supervising nurse is also a cancer survivor, and we traded stories of chemo and life as a survivor. The dynamic between cancer survivors is a cool kind of camaraderie that I can't really put into words.
As with the staff who greeted me, all of the other nursing staff on duty for my surgery were incredibly nice, too. We talked about the upcoming wedding, my job as a teacher ("Oh, those fourth graders just must love having a male teacher!"), and, naturally, my general love of superheroes (one nurse identified as a Thor fan, while the anesthesiologist identified as actually being the Hulk. Yes, you read that correctly).
The doctor (who called dibs on Spider-Man, which I felt was foolish since he had a perfect opportunity to choose Dr. Strange) came in to talk to me about the procedure. After that, Lady Thor injected me with some medicine that put me into a calm state. It made me sleepy, but I did not fall into Odinsleep.
The surgery team tented me up and injected me with a local anesthetic. To be honest, this was the only pain I felt during the procedure. It felt like a short bee sting, followed by a fiery feeling coursing through my chest. Spider-Doc told me I would feel some pressure. Fewer than two minutes later, he said, "OK, the port is out."
They then patched me up with some glue, which the Hulk said was just Gorilla Glue from Home Depot (and I'm not sure if he was kidding).
After being observed for 30 minutes, the nurse gave me my discharge instructions, which were pretty easy to follow: no strenuous exercise for 24 hours (read: Avengers mini-marathon for the next 24 hours), no driving for 24 hours (read: put on a gender-swapped production of Driving Miss Daisy with my fiancée, Mal) and no showers for 48 hours (read: Mal would be sleeping in the guest room to avoid my imminent powerful stench).
I began feeling a dull pain about four hours after my procedure, which I combated with Advil. I took more the following morning and once during the day. Compared to the pain of the neupogen shots or other maladies during cancer treatment, this slight ache was nothing. It was like Ronan in Guardians of the Galaxy - annoying, but ultimately forgettable.
Two days later, I removed the bandage. Though I had shaved my chest in preparation for surgery, the bandage still pulled on the hair, which was more painful than any pain I experienced with the surgery. I looked down and confirmed it — I was no longer Iron Man, with a chest piece keeping me alive. (The nerd in me wants to point out that Tony Stark had his arc reactor removed in Iron Man 3, so technically I still can be Iron Man.)
While getting my port out was a very quick and mostly painless procedure, it represented another hurdle I had overcome. My hair had grown back (just like Groot had regrown into Baby Groot by Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2) and I wasn't getting drugs pumped regularly into my body, but I still had an obnoxious reminder of cancer in my chest. Besides being physically annoying, it was a constant sign of my journey, and it was one that I couldn't escape. It was literally a part of me. With it gone, I had tangible proof that I would no longer need chemo and that this phase was 100 percent behind me. Furthermore, losing the port also represented the last major medical procedure I would have for the foreseeable future. After months of surgeries, chemo, and other visits, I'm just about done with doctor's visits. While I don't ever want to necessarily forget this period of my life, I can do without something always literally jabbing me in the chest.
Even though it was out of my body, I still wanted to keep the port. However, since it's apparently medical waste, I wasn't allowed to take it home with me, but they did show it to me before they threw it away. Talk about poor service — I paid hundreds of dollars for this thing and I don't even get to keep it! (Just kidding, I have nothing but good things to say about the hospital.) Lady Thor asked me why I wanted to keep it, especially since it's a reminder of the bad times.
I don't see it that way. I see it as the vessel that helped to save my life. Yes, it was uncomfortable and I'm thankful to have it out, but it saved me by delivering the medicine that killed my cancer. I wanted to keep it as a reminder of what I had overcome. Lady Thor, understanding my love for superheroes, paraphrased Batman from Batman Begins:
"It's not what's underneath, but what you do that defines you as a survivor."