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.
It's not ghosts and ghouls... it's a reminder of the past.
While October can be scary with its Halloween motif, this month is borderline traumatic for me. I'm not referring to the incident in which my dad saw it fit to take me to an "extreme haunted house" when I was 7 years old; I'm referencing the fact that in October 2016, I discovered a lump on my testicle, was told I most likely had cancer, and had the testicle removed in a matter of three weeks. I was officially diagnosed with stage 2 testicular cancer on Halloween Day (though I didn't receive the results until two days later).
Now in 2018, I'm two years out from that terrifying month, but the anxiety continues to grow as the month ticks away. Last year, it wasn't until Oct. 27 that I realized just how much of a mess I was internally throughout the month.
That evening (which coincided with the one-year anniversary of my surgery), I was watching the Netflix series Stranger Things. Season two opened nearly one year to the day of when Will disappeared into another dark dimension (this was the plot of the entire first season). His psychologist listens to his anxieties about this date and states that Will's experience is normal and is indicative of the “The Anniversary Effect,” when an "anniversary of an event brings back traumatic memories. Sort of opens up the neurological floodgates, so to speak."
Nearly 30 seconds after the doctor said that line, I started feeling very overwhelmed and anxious for a variety of reasons. I began thinking about some minor inconveniences from earlier in the day. Our HVAC wasn't pumping hot air, so I had spent two hours earlier bouncing between calls with the installers, the home warranty company and the manufacturer. Finally, it was resolved, but by then it was dinner time. Once dinner was over, it was too late to go to the gym and to watch the show as I had planned.
I figured I'd just get my workout in the next day, but with the installers scheduled to come the following day, I wasn't sure if that would happen or not. I also wanted popcorn, but a student had brought me a donut that morning. Fitness and clean eating had become a priority to me, which is healthy. However, that night, a skipped workout, a donut and some popcorn created an overwhelming feeling of anxiety.
Ordinarily, they would be minor nuisances.
But as that scene flashed before my eyes, all these events all suddenly and unexpectedly hit me like a ton of bricks. I may not have faced a dark and twisted world like Will, but I began my battle against another Hell a year prior: cancer. It dawned on me — I was facing my own Anniversary Effect.
I suppose that was what being triggered feels like, or perhaps a mild anxiety attack. It's not a fun feeling. I couldn't necessarily pinpoint why I was feeling that way, and therefore, I wasn't sure what I really needed to do to move forward.
I decided not to watch episode two, as I didn't want any more “fun” surprises. I tried to explain to my wife what I was feeling but as usual, what I tried to say aloud didn't quite match my thoughts. I retreated to solitude to write, which is how I coped with many of my cancer trials.
A few months after that Stranger Things episode, I was diagnosed with depression and started on antidepressants, which helped tremendously. In the summer, I watched the rest of season 2 without any problems (aside from the disappointment of a subplot that never came to fruition).
Fast forward to October 2018, and the feelings of anxiety are creeping back. Pretty much the day the calendar flipped to this spooky month, I had a dream — a nightmare, really – of my urologist telling me that the cancer had come back and it the prognosis was not as good this time. I woke up in a panic and had to reassure myself that it was only in my head.
Speaking of my head, I developed a series of severe migraines the following week. I had never experienced a migraine before, but I woke up with one a week every day for a week straight. This headache was only faded when it was replaced with a strong cough. My first reaction was that the headache and cough were signs that not only had my cancer returned, but it has metastasized to my brain and lungs. Stressing about this only made the headaches worse.
Eventually, more cold and flu symptoms began emerging. When I woke up with an earache, I decided to heed my own advice of going to the doctor when something feels wrong. The doctor diagnosed me with an ear and sinus infection. After beginning on various antibiotics, giving myself rest, and drinking plenty of fluids, I'm physically feeling significantly better, which helps the mental side of things worry less.
I've said it once and I'll say it again: Fighting cancer was the easy part. Surviving it is exponentially harder.
I know these worries are normal in cancer survivors, but it's always important to share these so we don't feel alone. Once November hits, I'm sure I will feel slightly better, as that marks the beginning of chemo, which turned out successfully for me. I'll do even better in December when I have my next set of scans, which will hopefully turn out clear.
If you're coming up on your own cancerversary and feeling scared, sad, anxious, worried, or anything of the like, it is ok and know that there is a community here for you. In time, it gets better (I hope) and you're stronger for admitting when you need help.