At 25, Justin Birckbichler was a fourth-grade teacher living in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and overall feeling great about life. He was in good shape and kept fit through a regular jogging routine. Plus, he had just completed the Spartan Spirit race, a challenging obstacle course known for being muddy, rowdy, and grueling.
Though health wasn’t a huge priority, Birckbichler did make time for regular testicular self-exams. And in October 2016, he found a lump.
“Because there was no pain associated with the lump (like many testicular cancer survivors mention), I thought it was nothing. I had no fatigue, headaches, swelling, fever, or anything that indicated I was sick,” he recalls.
According to the Testicular Cancer Society, when surveyed, only about 42 percent of men knew how to perform a self-exam. Birckbichler is lucky he was one of them. He called his doctor a few days after finding the lump — and that timing turned out to be instrumental in his survival.
His physician suspected testicular cancer and immediately sent him for an ultrasound. The diagnosis was confirmed and his testicle was removed by the end of that month. Then, in early November, a CT scan revealed that the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes. Now, it was more than a lump. It was stage 2B nonseminoma testicular cancer.
Birckbichler immediately began 21 treatments of chemotherapy, which finally concluded in January 2017. A scan in November of that year showed that he’s in remission. But kicking cancer is only the beginning of his story…
Talking openly about balls
Having been given a second chance at life, Birckbichler is on a mission to live it to the fullest. He launched A Ballsy Sense of Tumor, a blog that aims to boost awareness of testicular cancer and men’s health overall. The title of his blog was purposefully chosen to convey his positive, humorous mindset in the face of a life-threatening disease.
“I couldn’t find a patient-friendly resource that detailed the entire journey (from discovery to the struggles of survivorship) and was written from a twenty-something’s perspective,” said Birckbichler, now 26 and married. “I’m hoping to fill that void and am happy when I hear others have found [the blog] helpful.”
“Getting cancer in and of itself was a blessing in disguise. Before cancer, I was like a dog chasing a ball.” – Justin Birckbichler, cancer survivor
Birckbichler also hopes A Ballsy Sense of Tumor encourages men to start talking more about their health. His approachable and sincere voice is at times funny, as in Six Ways to Talk About Testicles (spoiler alert: number two is Carpe Scrotiem!), and at other times poignant, like when he talks about his battle with depression.
The blog recently won an award for the best advocacy and awareness cancer blog in 2017 and Birckbichler was recognized as one of 15 people who raised cancer awareness in 2017. This spring, he’ll attend Janssen’s HealtheVoices Conference in Chicago to learn more about promoting men’s health awareness.
The serious side of survivorship
All humor aside, Birckbichler says survivorship — not treatment — has been the most difficult aspect of his journey.
After going through treatment, he had time to reflect on his diagnosis and the treatment decisions that had to be made in a matter of weeks. It was then that he began feeling depressed and sought medication for it.
Still, even during the darker times, his outlook remains positive.
“Getting cancer in and of itself was a blessing in disguise,” he says. “Before cancer, I was like a dog chasing a ball. I buried myself in random education projects, instead of finding what was meaningful to me. I’m making better use of my time now.”
“I was always a very determined person and became even more so throughout treatment,” he adds.
Starting a conversation
Birckbichler understands why most men don’t prioritize their health, let alone discuss it openly. “Society has such skewed visions of men talking about their health. We’re supposed to be seen as strong and able to heal ourselves,” he explains.
According to a Cleveland Clinic survey of 500 U.S. men…
- 40 percent don’t get annual checkups
- 42 percent see a doctor only when concerned about a serious problem
- 61 percent see a doctor only when the symptom or pain becomes unbearable
- 42 percent don’t talk about their health unless they’ve had a close call
- 19 percent see a doctor just to stop a loved one from bothering them
“I had really no major health events, and perhaps my uneventful history caused me to be less worried when I first felt a lump,” Birckbichler recalls.
To take better care of themselves, men need to talk more openly about their health.
“I want to live in a world where we can freely talk about testicular self-exams. I want conversation to be open about all health issues, but I’m especially passionate about men’s health,” he added. “Not talking about it can be a potentially life-threatening mistake.”
Birckbichler is currently working on a health video that he hopes will be used to promote testicular cancer awareness nationally.
“I am really excited about this as the filming, editing, and production will be done in conjunction with high school students, who are part of the age range most at risk for testicular cancer,” he explains.
April is testicular cancer awareness month, so Birckbichler plans on promoting his message and his new video to the max. Eventually, he’d like to write a book about his experiences as well.
“I want men thinking of me and checking themselves… hopefully not at the same time, but whatever works,” he says with his trademark sense of humor fully intact.
Start with a self-exam:
- The best time to conduct a self-exam is after a shower, when the scrotum is relaxed.
- Place your index and middle fingers under the testicle with your thumb on top.
- Firmly but gently, roll the testicle between your fingers.
- Any weird lumps or bumps should be checked out by a doctor.
Kristen Fischer is a copywriter and journalist from New Jersey. She has published four books, including “Zoo Zen: A Yoga Story for Kids.” You can follow her on Twitter.