Life had other plans for me. Instead of having a ball, I spent that weekend losing one.
Keep reading to hear more about Zeus ambassador Justin Birckbichler's testicular cancer journey. For other articles featuring Justin and more Zeus ambassadors check out the Zeus Beard blog.
"No Shave November" is all about spreading men's health awareness. Subscribe to our newsletter for more "No Shave November" stories and ways to donate.
The importance of "checking under your hood"
Earlier that month, I felt a lump on my testicle while doing a routine self-exam in the shower.
Even though I knew to do a self-exam monthly, and on that October day something felt amiss, I was initially hesitant to call the doctor. I hadn't even been to the doctor for a routine check-up in the three years prior and now I was faced with a problem that was decidedly abnormal. I wanted to brush it under the rug but I had a sense doing so would be foolish.
Unsurprisingly, I’m not the only man who has felt this way. In a study of 500 U.S. men ages 18 to 70, the Cleveland Clinic found that just over 40 percent only go to the doctor once they fear their medical issue is serious and 53 percent don't like to talk about it. Put simply, men don't discuss their health and I was part of the problem.
Finally, after some nagging and prodding from my then-fiancé, I called a general family doctor. Within two weeks, I was sitting in a urologist's office. Despite my initial desire to ignore the issue, I somehow knew a bombshell was about to be dropped.
How to do a self exam for testicular cancer at home
In case you're like the 42 percent of men who say they don't know how to do a self-exam, it's a pretty easy and effective way to catch testicular cancer early on.
The quick test is best done during or after a shower when the scrotum is relaxed.
To effectively check for abnormal lumps, 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.For more tips, check out these diagram instructions from the Testicular Cancer Awareness Foundation.
The diagnosis“So I am going to be straight with you. You have testicular cancer.” Those were the first words out of the doctor's mouth.
“Is this something I get a second opinion on,” I asked. Even though I had prepared myself for bad news, the direct nature and magnitude of his words made me lose my breath momentarily.
I was only 25. No one that young seriously believes they can be diagnosed with cancer, especially in their balls.
“In most cases, I tell my patients to get a second opinion. In your case, we don’t have time,” he replied. “So what’s next,” I inquired. For the time being, I had to accept this new diagnosis and move forward with whatever was to come.
“Surgery. We need to remove the affected testicle immediately. We can probably get you in tomorrow.” I was not expecting that. I thought I could deal with cancer. Losing a ball? It seemed impossible.
Resigned to my fate, I began to grapple with the fact that I would be losing 50 percent of my testicles, and what I, like most guys, considered a direct physical manifestation of my manhood.
Surgery and the start of big changesAs I prepared myself for surgery, I remembered that instead of gathering up items to take to a hospital room, I should have been packing for homecoming at Shippensburg. It was a stark contrast from my planned carefree weekend of partying.
The surgery itself was easy and uneventful but what came after was difficult: talking about it.
So many of my college conversations, with friends I should have been seeing that weekend, 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. It’s ironic that guys casually mention balls all the time, but ignore their testicular health.
I was beginning to realize that while it's socially acceptable for guys to joke about their balls, having serious conversations about testicular health has a serious stigma. This is a deadly mistake.
Initially, I hesitated in telling 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 knew that my own reaction to my 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, I knew my story might help change the narrative.
Recovering from the surgery and the stigmasWhile recovering from surgery, I decided to start a testicular cancer awareness blog, titled "A Ballsy Sense of Tumor" (I love a good pun). I decided to detail my entire journey, from discovery to eventual survivorship.
I wanted to take the narrative that I was sharing with close friends to a larger audience, to help destroy the stigma. It’s an urgent need, literally a life and death mission.
As I began drafting posts, I came to the point in my story about the surgery. At first, I referred to the surgery as having a cancerous mass removed. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to out myself as having one testicle or keep that vague.
Upon further reflection, I realized that I was perpetuating a harmful narrative --- hiding a health problem to maintain my sense of “being a man.”
So I decided to bare all (not literally) and share with the world that I was now the Amazing Uni-baller, one of the lesser known Avengers.
I’m glad I did. I feel like I couldn’t be an advocate for men’s health and honest communication if I wasn’t being honest myself.
A homecoming for men's health
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 men 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 keeping our health experiences to ourselves. Not talking about it can be a potentially life-threatening mistake.
We need to live in a world where we can freely talk about testicular self-exams and other men’s health issues without it seeming like a threat to our manhood (it’s not --- it will literally save our manhood). I want all health-related conversations to eliminate stigma but I’m especially passionate about men’s health.
A year later, I finally made it to Shippensburg University but it wasn’t for homecoming. 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 for the largest simultaneous self-exam.
You don’t have to lead a simultaneous self-exam attempt to join this crusade. It’s simple --- you just need to talk. Talk to a male buddy about your health. Ask him about his. Ask when he last did a testicular self-exam or scheduled a prostate exam.
Will talking about your health be uncomfortable? At first, probably. But eventually, we can change the dynamic and the stigma against men discussing health. Dialogue like this should be commonplace and encouraged. It may be the conversation that saves a life.
Let’s work together to spread light where the sun don’t shine.
More testicular cancer factsHere are some more facts from the American Cancer Society 2019 demographics.
- One in 250 males will develop testicular cancer at some point during their life.
- 50 percent of testicular cancer cases occur in males age 15-44.
- The average age at the time of a testicular cancer diagnosis is 33.
- About six percent of cases occur in children and teens and about 8 percent in men over 55.
- Approximately 9,610 new U.S. cases will be diagnosed in 2020 (up from 9,310 in 2018 and 9,560 in 2019).
- There will be an estimated 440 deaths in 2020.
- A man's lifetime risk of dying of testicular cancer is about one in 5,000.
- If a man has testicular cancer, his brothers or sons have a slightly higher risk to develop it.
- Most men with testicular cancer do not have a family history of the disease.
- White men are five times more likely to develop testicular cancer than black men and three times more likely than Asian-American or American-Indian men.
- Another risk factor for testicular cancer is an undescended testicle.
- The incidence rate of testicular cancer has increased for several decades for unknown reasons.
- Common symptoms of testicular cancer include a lump, unexplained swelling, testicular pain, aching, feeling of heaviness of the testicle, lower back and stomach pain and breast pain or growth.
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