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 email@example.com.
I realized after facing my own cancer battle two years ago, I was free to fly to the other side of the "I have cancer" conversation.
The day before the first day of school began, our Sunday evening all-staff email closed with the following line:
"Please keep Mrs. M in your thoughts and prayers. She was just diagnosed with breast cancer."
This simple message reminded me of an email I had received two years ago, with two notable differences. The teacher in that first email wasn't diagnosed with breast cancer; it was testicular cancer. The name wasn't Mrs. M; it was Mr. Birckbichler.
As luck would have it, the following day, I ended up in Mrs. M's room to quickly repair her audio cables (I am the instructional technology coach in my school, aka tech support in the first few weeks of school). While fixing the cables was easy, repairing her present health situation was harder, but I knew I had to try to help. Whereas I was once the teacher facing cancer, now I could be the voice of wisdom and experience — not that I consider myself wise at the age of 27.
I fumbled through my opening. It's not exactly easy to switch from, "So I just kind of plugged in this cable," to, "So you're the teacher who has cancer." Not having any better ideas and realizing I was awkwardly standing in her room, I eventually decided on, "So I had cancer two years ago, and I get where you're coming from."
While that may not have exactly ranked too highly on the “Smooth Justin Lines Greatest Hits,” it opened the dialogue. Just as I was in the fall of 2016, she was lost, confused and upset. She began to share her story.
After a routine mammogram and pap smear, her doctor called her back to have a second look. Her doctor wasn't worried initially and wanted it more as a precaution. An ultrasound showed it was more serious than initially thought. In a matter of days, she was diagnosed with cancer.
I was struck with a sense of deja vu. While the affected organs were different, our stories mirrored each other. I, too, had discovered a testicular lump during a routine self-exam, but my doctor wasn't initially too concerned. However, after an ultrasound a few days later, I was told I had cancer. Sadly, this narrative seems all too common in the cancer community.
While this duality of our paths ran through my mind, I made a point to be sure I was listening without interrupting. One thing I never enjoyed during my cancer trials was people putting their two cents in, often without me even asking for it. It's important for someone facing a cancer battle to have the time and space to talk their thoughts out. Talking directly with someone who “gets it” first hand is a sometimes rare commodity.
After she got her general feelings out, she asked me some direct questions about a cancer journey. While my expertise lies further south of her affected area, I was happy to do my best to answer her queries that we had in common. We are on the same insurance plans, so I was able to help with some of that. Since we live in the same area, I told her where I went for treatment if she needed to head down that path.
Though I didn't want to overwhelm her, I did give her some advice that had helped me. I told her it would be helpful to find an outlet for her thoughts and feelings (though she didn't have to do like me with my chosen path of writing), stay away from Dr. Google (since he's often wrong), and to not sweat the small stuff (because at the end of the day, being alive is far more important than stressing about bills and who's going to watch your class for the remainder of the day while you go to an appointment).
As soon as I said the last bit of advice, she realized she didn't have coverage for her second-grade class. To take one thing off her plate, I put the offer out to watch them for her. She gratefully accepted, and I was then in charge of a bunch of 7-year-olds, making me realize that teaching younger grades is way different than my former position as a fourth-grade teacher. If I'm ever asked to sub for a Kindergarten class, I think I'll say, thanks, but no — I think I'm good to go.
At the end of the day, once I told the little critters to come with me and take the ride back to their homes, I settled into my own vehicle to drive home. I realized after facing my own cancer battle two years ago, I was free to fly to the other side of the "I have cancer" conversation. While it was empowering for me to pay it forward, the potential impact this discussion may have had on her was what struck me as most important.
Hopefully, by sharing my journey — and more importantly, listening to her concerns – I was able to help set her mind somewhat at ease and prepare for whatever lies ahead.