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.
A look back on that time more than 200 men grabbed their balls in public.
Since graduating in 2013 from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, I’ve been back on campus a handful times to speak at the request of my college professors about different topics in education. On Nov. 6, 2017, I once again found myself on Shippensburg’s campus to speak to a group about an educational topic, but this time the balls I was focused on weren’t my classroom’s yoga balls. I spoke to a room full of men planning to do the largest simultaneous testicular self-exam for a world record attempt.
In 2010, a group of 208 men in the United Kingdom did a simultaneous self-exam and are the current record holders (as of this writing). Jason Greenspan, a fellow testicular cancer survivor and soon-to-be Shippensburg University graduate, decided to break this record. Jason and I initially connected through Instagram when I noticed one of his pictures was taken in the Rec Hall at Shipp. While texting in the midst of my chemo, Jason asked me if I would speak at the event.
I didn’t want to just share my cancer experience at this event; I wanted the speech to weave my story in with a call to action. In true form, I made sure it contained numerous ball-related puns. Sometimes, I amaze even myself that I haven’t run out of phrases to show how nutty I am.
At the event, Jason organized a “mingle room” with a No Shave November event and other fun, social activities. There were TV reporters there, and I got to talk about the importance of balls on live TV — check out the segments on FOX43 and Local DVM!
Around 8:00, we shifted into the event room. Jason started with opening remarks and shared a bit of his story. I was struck by how similar our stories are (finding a lump through random chance at the peak of our lives, having to endure surgery and chemo, and coming out with a desire to spread awareness), although he was diagnosed at a much earlier age than I was.
After he spoke, Bruce Levy, a retired high school principal and another survivor, came to the stage to share his journey. His story was much different than Jason’s and mine; he had a lot of pain and other symptoms (irregular bowel movements for one, a problem I never have) before being diagnosed. I think it’s good to share that not all roads start the same, but each testicular cancer survivor ends up riding a unicycle at the end.
Then it was my turn to talk. While I’ve spoken at numerous educational conferences, including a keynote in front of about 300 people, this audience was significantly different: a large gathering of frat boys. Nonetheless, I had a mission to do and I began sharing my story, along with common excuses I hear. I had to be on the ball from the start.
The speech really seemed to resonate with the audience, and numerous students came up to me at the end to share that they loved it. Since they didn’t get too teste with me for my endless puns, I’ll continue to fine-tune the speech in hopes of speaking to other groups of guys. Judging by the crowd’s reaction, their favorite line was “It only takes one minute to do a self-exam… or in my case, only 30 seconds.”
After my speaking part was done, I joined in with a group of guys to listen to the next portion of the program: the mass self=check for cancerous masses.
Two local doctors reiterated the importance of self-checks and cited various statistics. They then led into how exactly to do an exam. When one of the doctors told us to reach into our pants to begin the exams, I will be honest, it got a little awkward in the room.
However, I couldn't stand in front of them and address the group about self-exam importance and not lead the way. In one swift motion, I unzipped and reached into my pants to begin the procedure. What happened next was nothing short of inspiring.
The guy to my right followed suit, and as I glanced around, I saw more guys were dropping their uncertainty (but not their drawers — there was no nudity at the event) and joining in.
One by one, hand upon hand plunged in to trousers to wrangle the balls within. Guys who looked at each other with uneasy glances just moments prior were checking themselves in what can only be described as a truly touching moment.
The doctor then told us to switch to check our other testicle, which meant my check was done.
As I embarked on my three-hour drive home, I kept coming back to that moment: 235 men, including myself, had just checked 469 testicles at one time, which has never been done before. Results are pending at Guinness for if it is official or not, but that's not what matters to me.
The record attempt was a gimmick to get them there, but the real important point is that 234 men heard about testicular cancer and the impact it had on Jason, Bruce and me. Beyond sharing our stories, we all touched on a common thread, that self-checks are important, and we need to be talking more about balls.
Those 234 men now know how to do a self-check and hopefully will make it part of their monthly routine. My bigger hope is that they will tell their other friends about it and spark further discussion. I’d love to do this at other universities, even if it’s not as part of an official record attempt.
Was it a long day, with a six hour round trip for a two-hour event? Oh yes.
Was it worth it? Absolutely.
Did we grab their attention? I certainly think we did… and their attention was the second most important thing that was grabbed that evening.