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.
Six and 12 months after finishing chemo, I reflected on how my healing continued.
Jan. 30, 2017 will always stick out in my mind as the day I finished chemo. I’ve kept a log of how I was feeling, inside and out, at six and 12 months post-chemo.
At six months I wrote: “In April [2017, two months post chemo], my nausea and fatigue were nearly all gone, but I still had some slight issues. Today, I am completely free of both symptoms. I have not felt nauseous for at least three months, and my energy level is way up. I’ve completed about six weeks of P90X, which is a more challenging strength-building regimen than I had done in the year or two prior to diagnosis. I have also been running more regularly, cutting over three minutes off of my mile time since April. I just returned from my bachelor party with my groomsmen, which involved three days of camping, hiking through a state park, exploring a Civil War battlefield and playing paintball and dozens of rounds of Kan Jam. Am I exhausted? Yes. But I am glad I had the energy to do all of that.
A physical difference is that my hair has completely regrown to its normal length. I even had to get a haircut recently since it was getting too long and ratty. While losing my hair helped me to realize that my outward appearance is not the only thing that makes up my identity, it definitely helps me feel more like myself when I’m able to spike it up again.
Despite these positive changes, some latent negative side effects are still lingering. Water still tastes funny to me, but adding lemon helps tremendously. I’m not sleeping as well as I was before chemo, but I have also been going to bed later and later. I have some minor memory issues and am still going strong with Google Keep to-do lists and random stickies to help me keep track of what I need to get done.”
At 12 months I wrote: “I’m 99.999 percent back to normal, with no feelings of nausea or trouble sleeping. My fitness levels are through the roof; I recently ran a mile in less than seven minutes and 30 seconds, my bench press max is higher than it was in college and I’ve lost over 30 pounds (the 10 pounds I gained on chemo, the five on the honeymoon and then some), making me the lightest since moving to Virginia in 2013.
The only real remnant of a physical side effect (accounting for that 0.001 percent) is my continued disdain for plain water. I honestly have no idea if that’s even related to a lingering side effect, but I only take my water infused with lemon or cucumber… and shaken, not stirred.”
At six months I wrote: “I’m not the person I was before chemo. I’m not the person I was during chemo. I’m not even the person I was directly after chemo. I am a changed person.
To be honest, I am terrified of a recurrence. Recently, I thought I felt another lump. Sometimes I feel pain in my scrotum. Are these symptoms real concerns, or are they the paranoid thoughts of a cancer survivor? I don’t want to be the Boy Who Cried Wolf, but I also want to have constant vigilance. Finding that balance has proven more difficult for me than I thought.
I also struggle to stay even-keeled in my attitude. I often go through drastic mood swings. One moment, I will be totally fine, and the next, I’ll become very sullen and agitated about the smallest things. I know that it’s hard on those around me, and I don’t mean it to be. Life after cancer isn’t easy, and much like PTSD, its effects sometimes take me by surprise You don’t know what it’s like until you’ve been there. I wouldn’t wish this experience on anyone.
People tell me I should be happy and excited because I am in remission and survived, but I find it hard to be at times. I don’t really have a real reason for it other than the internal healing is much harder than the physical.
I suppose there is no real timeline or recommended course of action to help overcome this. I was in therapy for a few weeks, but I never seemed to talk about cancer during sessions. The thing is, my downward spiral about cancer isn’t something I can talk about at a regularly scheduled time. It comes and goes as it pleases, announcing itself unexpectedly, much like the cancer did.
When I am fine, it seems trivial to talk about. When I am experiencing an episode, I don’t want to talk about it. When I need it most, I can’t bring myself to verbalize what I’m feeling. This is the cruel irony of cancer remission. I want to talk about it, but at the same time, I don’t.”
At 12 months I wrote: “Emotionally, I’m doing better than I was doing at six months, but I’m not quite to the level of the positive and chipper attitude I had two months after chemo. As I’ve shared, I started on antidepressants after my last CT scan, and I’ve been on them for about a month now. They say it takes about six weeks for them to fully take effect.
My doctor recently upped my dose to 30 milligrams a day instead of 20, since I was not feeling any different after four weeks. Since beginning the increased dose, I am noticing that my overall mood is improving. I am hoping that this is due to finding the right pill and not just a placebo effect. Of one thing I am certain: My goals, perspective and focus have changed since beginning this journey.”