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 final part in a series about my experiences at Relay for Life 2018.
I've been reflecting on my experience from Relay for Life 2018, which was my first one ever. Even though it was my first, I was both the team captain and a cancer survivor. I've shared two of my takeaways: “Relay for Life is to celebrate cancer survivors” and “Relay for Life is to fight back against cancer.” Today brings us to the third, and most serious, takeaway I left Relay with.
Relay for Life is to remember the fallen
When it comes to cancer, it's not just all about celebrating the survivors and talking about balls. Unfortunately, there is a somber side: those who we lost to cancer. A big part of Relay for Life is the luminary ceremony. I didn't purchase an "In Honor of Justin Birckbichler" bag, and I dissuaded others from doing so, since I am still here, and I wanted any money to go to remembering those who are no longer with us. (My mom did end up suggesting a bag to remember Lefty.)
As I've said numerous times, my Grandpa was the first real experience I've had with cancer and my first close family member who passed away. He's a big part of motivation for what I do with cancer awareness and his mantra of "Just tell me what I need to do and I'll do it" was what kept me going during chemotherapy. When I was buying luminary bags for other colleagues, I purchased one for him, too. Later that evening, I set it out on the track along with the hundreds of others, and all the participants began the silent remembrance lap.
While other Relay for Life laps were fun and filled with laughter and pumped-up music (though there was a distinct lack of TayTay), this lap was quiet, with soft music playing in the background. My mom and I walked the lap together and went we returned back to our area, we stood in front of Grandpa's bag, just staring at it.
"I miss him every day," I said as I wrapped my mom in a hug.
"I do, too. He'd be so proud of you," she whispered back.
We stood there for a few more moments and I reflected on all the lessons he taught me. I know how to tie a tie because of him. I can golf (albeit, not well) because of him. I have a stronger resolve because of him. I remember calling him on the phone driving to and from college, just to talk. I truly miss him every day. Despite all the good I try to do with cancer awareness and the positive changes in my life I've made since facing my own battle, I would trade all that away in a heartbeat if I could just have one more moment with him.
As I sit here drafting this on the verge of tears (and by verge, I mean there are some welling up), I can't help but think of the scrolling screen of names that followed the silent lap. Sometimes, there were multiple different first names that shared one unique family name. I can't even begin to imagine how they feel, losing so many to cancer.
My future plans with Relay for Life
At the end of the day, both literally and metaphorically, I was not interested in the amount of money that was donated at Relay for Life. While the American Cancer Society does a lot of good with the money it raises, there's a picture that's bigger than the research, patient support services and funding. To me, it's about celebrating the cancer survivors, fighting back against cancer and remembering the fallen.
Next year, I'm not sure if I want to be team captain again. The woman I "took over" for did an incredible job being the de facto team captain, and I think my time could be better spent elsewhere.
I want to help with the survivor team. As I went on and on about Tammy in the beginning, I couldn't help but think about how it would be great to give back more. I plan to talk to her at our wrap up meeting and see how I can get more involved.
To those who have been impacted by cancer, check out where the nearest Relay for Life is for you. It's more than just raising money and walking laps… it's truly an experience.