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.
Physically, I was on an upswing, but emotionally, things weren't looking great.
Oct. 26: I was told I most likely had cancer.
Nov. 2: The cancer was confirmed.
Nov. 7: I was told the cancer was stage 2.
Nov. 28: I began chemo.
Jan. 30: Chemo was completed.
March 2: the day I was told I was in remission.
On this day, I met with my oncologist, Dr. Maurer, to go over the results of my most recent CT scan. He began by pulling up my scans from November and comparing them to the scan from Saturday, Feb. 25. I am not a doctor, but even I could see that things had vastly improved.
"Robin's egg-sized tumors” that lined my spine in November were now small specks. (These specks are normal-sized lymph nodes.) My scans were clear. I was officially on the road to being cancer-free. (No word on when I get my official monogrammed "Cancer Survivor" letterman's jacket. That's a thing, right?)
Hearing the words, "you are in remission" was surreal. I wasn't sure how to feel right then. My fiancée Mallory was beaming from ear to ear, and my mom (via FaceTime) welled up with tears of joy. At that moment, I just wanted more details.
Dr. Maurer said that I would be tracked closely for the next two years, as this was the timeframe for the greatest risk of recurrence. I would have another CT scan in early June 2017 to confirm that there were no changes. Those scans would be compared to my "new baseline" scans from February. Changes would be tracked and closely monitored. If those scans were good, my port could be removed shortly thereafter. He wanted to make sure that my port was out well before the honeymoon in July, so I wouldn't need to have limits on what I could do. A simple gesture, but it meant a lot to me. We have plans to ride ATVs where they filmed Jurassic Park. I am not going to miss out on that.
We discussed various other details. My hair (which was a rich fuzz by that point) would continue to regrow and should be back to its normal length by the wedding. I would need my port flushed in April to make sure it didn't get clogged up and cause difficulties for me. I needed to be proactive in monitoring my health for any changes.
One thing that really resonated with me was that he advised me to seek counseling to help process everything and recommended a specific therapist. He said that oftentimes, cancer patients are more or less emotionally fine during treatment, but face struggles in the aftermath.
While I was receiving chemo, my nurses and doctors told me what to do to be healed, and Mallory and my mom helped support me. My grandfather's mantra, "Just tell me what to do and I'll do it" became my own. I had little time to react and process anything; I just had to act.
But now, I was back at work. My hair and beard were re-growing. My cancer was gone for now. My energy levels and appetite were recovering. From the outside, things look pretty normal.
Remission is a good thing, and I am happy about that. People told me congratulations (although I don't feel like I did anything worthy of receiving this) and that I must be relieved. I am, but it was a weird mix of happiness, anxiety about the possibility of recurrence, and built up stress from everything that has happened.
My life had changed drastically since October. Things should have been getting back to normal, but life had just slowed down enough for me to begin processing everything that has happened.
From initial discovery to being in remission, it had been less than five months. It's a lot for anyone to process and handle in an incredibly short time frame, let alone a 25-year-old whose biggest concern before this was if he could stay up late enough to watch a Marvel midnight showing.
I really had no time to process what has happened to me. Emotionally, I didn't feel quite normal. I had three months off of work, but that was no vacation. It was spent allowing my body to recover and dealing with side effects. I don't really feel like my body betrayed me or wonder why this had to happen to me, but I also never allowed myself time to reflect and process this whole ordeal. It's really hard to put into words, and it's the type of thing you can't quite understand until you experience it for yourself (which I sincerely hope you never have to do).
I looked into getting counseling now and feel no shame in admitting that. I always try to mask my emotions and appear to be strong, but I knew that this was not a time to do that. That might work when I am upset about the dishes not being done that evening, but it's not a good way to handle a post-cancer transition back to normal life. I was in counseling in high school and it helped get me out of a bad place. I wanted to be proactive and not let myself get to that place again.
But despite everything, I still saw a positive. Cancer really put things in perspective for me. I could more clearly see what is important to me, like my personal relationships, and what really isn't worthy of my time, thoughts or energy.
Even though my body may be healed, my emotions were not recovering quite as quickly. The real work with that was just beginning.