It’s Time We Talk about It
by Justin Birckbichler
I had big goals for my third college homecoming on October 28, 2016 – tailgating before the football game, hitting up my favorite college bars, and catching up with old friends. But life had other plans for me. Instead of having a ball, I spent that weekend losing one.
Earlier that month, I felt a lump on my testicle while doing a routine self-exam in the shower. Even though I initially wanted to shrug it off, I called my doctor. Within two weeks, I was sitting in a urologist’s office.
“So, I am going to be straight with you,” the doctor said. “You have testicular cancer.”
Even though I was prepared for bad news, the direct nature and magnitude of his words made me lose my breath.
“Is this something I can get a second opinion on?” I asked. I was only 25. No one that young seriously believes they can be diagnosed with cancer.
“In most cases, I tell my patients to get a second opinion. In your case, we don’t have time,” he replied. “We need to remove the affected testicle immediately. We can probably get you in tomorrow.”
It’s socially acceptable for guys to joke about their balls, but having a serious conversation about testicular health carries a serious stigma.
Resigned to my fate, I began to grapple with the fact that I would be losing one-half of my testicles, which I considered a physical manifestation of my manhood. I should have been packing for homecoming weekend at my alma mater. Instead, I was gearing up for a trip to the hospital.
The surgery itself was easy and uneventful. It’s what came after that was difficult – talking about it.
So many conversations with my college buddies revolved around the word “balls.” If you were taking charge of life, you were grabbing life by the balls. You chickened out? You have no balls. Isn’t it ironic how young guys talk about balls all the time yet ignore their testicular health? It’s socially acceptable for guys to joke about their balls, but having a serious conversation about testicular health carries a serious stigma. This can have deadly consequences.
At first, I was reluctant to tell people that I was now more aerodynamic below the belt because I didn’t want them to think I was less of a man. I realized that my reaction to my own testicular cancer surgery was an indicator of a larger societal issue: men don’t want to talk about anything that might make them seem less … manly.
But what if my story could help change this narrative?
During my recovery from surgery, I started a testicular cancer awareness blog – A Ballsy Sense of Tumor – to detail my journey. I wanted to use this platform to help destroy the stigma surrounding testicular cancer.
I realized that my reaction to my own testicular cancer surgery was an indicator of a larger societal issue: men don’t want to talk about anything that might make them seem less … manly.
At first, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to out myself as having one testicle or keep that vague. However, I realized that I if I glossed over the details, I was perpetuating a harmful narrative – I was just another man hiding a health problem to maintain a sense of “being a man.” So, I decided to bare all (not literally) and share with the world that I was now the Amazing Uniballer, one of the lesser known Avengers.
I’m glad I did. I couldn’t be a true advocate for honest communication about men’s health if I wasn’t being honest myself. But this isn’t just my story – it’s all of ours.
My story isn’t unique. How many men have gone through a medical crisis and stayed silent about it? How many don’t speak up when something isn’t right with their body simply because they think a “real man” would just grin and bear it.
We’re hurting ourselves and our fellow men by not speaking up about our health experiences. And not talking about it can be a potentially life-threatening mistake. We need to live in a world where we can freely discuss testicular self-exams and other men’s health issues without it seeming like a threat to our manhood (it’s not – it may literally save your manhood). I want all health-related conversations to be without stigma, but I’m especially passionate about men’s health.
One year after my diagnosis, I finally made it to back to my alma mater – now cancer-free. However, this visit wasn’t for homecoming festivities. I spoke in front of 235 men about the importance of regular self-exams and discussing their health openly. Following my speech, we all participated in a world-record attempt at the largest simultaneous self-exam.
However, you don’t have to make some grand gesture like we did that evening to join this crusade. It’s simple – just talk. Talk to a male buddy about your health. Ask him about his and when he last did a testicular self-exam. It may be uncomfortable at first. But, eventually, we can change the stigma surrounding men discussing their own health issues. Dialogue like this should be commonplace and encouraged. It may just be the conversation that saves a life. We can’t afford to drop the ball.
Justin Birckbichler is a men’s health activist, testicular cancer survivor, and the founder of aBallsySenseofTumor.com. From being diagnosed in November 2016 at age 25, to finishing chemo in January 2017, to being declared in remission in March, he has been passionate about sharing his story to spread awareness about testicular cancer and to promote open conversation about men’s health. You can connect with him on Instagram (@aballsysenseoftumor), on Twitter (@absotTC), on Facebook (Facebook.com/aballsysenseoftumor), on YouTube, or by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Make sure the men in your life know how to do a self-exam. Best done during or after a shower when the scrotum is relaxed, it’s a quick and effective way to catch testicular cancer early. Just 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. More of a visual learner? Check out safe-for-work infographics and video at bit.ly/absotselfexams.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2018.