My story of healing – Justin Birckbichler
From dealing with depression in high school, to a decade of healthy living, to dealing with testicular cancer the struggles of survivorship, Justin Birckbichler, now with one ball, bares it all for us… not literally. He’s doing it around the world to help men know their health is important both mental and physical health! I met Justin at June’s Mental Health America Conference, and he is one hilarious guy! You are in for a treat and will definitely want to follow his journey at A Ballsy Sense of Tumor!
Learn more about his story of healing below: Tell me about yourself:
I am originally from Pennsylvania but have been a resident of Virginia for the past six years. I live in Fredericksburg, which is about 60 miles south of D.C. I am married with no kids, but I have a dog and a cat who fight like a brother and sister. I work in an elementary school as an instructional technology coach. I was 25 at the time of my cancer diagnosis and recently turned 28.
I found a lump on my left testicle while doing a routine self-exam in the shower in early October 2016. A few days later, I called a doctor. My GP, urologist and oncologist stressed how important calling early and not putting it off was in a successful course of treatment.
By late October, an ultrasound result caused my doctor to suspect cancer. This was later confirmed with surgery, and the testicle was removed at the end of the month. But a CT in early November revealed the cancer spread to my lymph nodes causing my diagnosis/staging to be Stage IIB nonseminoma testicular cancer. I needed BEP chemo and started 21 treatments – 5 days in a row, 2 days off, 1 day on, 6 days off, 1 day on, rinse repeat for three cycles – in late November and concluded at the end of January 2017. A scan in March showed that I finally was in remission. I remain in remission as of December 2018!
What happened to cause your mental anguish?
While cancer was the physically toughest thing I’ve ever done, surviving cancer was much harder emotionally. Everything happened so fast! From diagnosis to chemo was less than a month, and chemo was wrapped up within six months. I had no time to process anything; just to react and follow next steps.
Within a year of being told I was in remission, I started feeling “off.” My days were filled with general feelings of “flatness,” irritability, random outbursts of anger, difficulty sleeping, loss of interest in activities and general moodiness. I had such a hard time grappling with the fact that I had nearly died, especially because it was my own body that tried to kill me.
On top of this, I had gone through a bout of severe depression in high school. This included self-harm, suicide ideation, and worse. I know that having depression at a young age puts me at risk for a recurrence later in life, and this study from 2017 says about 20% of cancer survivors experience PTSD symptoms within six months of diagnosis. The CDC also reports that cancer survivors need anxiety and depression medication at almost twice the rate of the general population.
Basically, it was a perfect storm of risk factors, and I didn’t want to get to the point I had in high school again, yet I still didn’t know how to ask for help. What was the moment or instance that caused you to realize that you needed to seek care?
I had a routine follow-up that showed me that I was still in remission. After receiving the results, my doctor asked me how I was doing. I said I was “fine.”
He looked me square in the eye and said, “Justin, how are you really doing?”
In that moment, I admitted I was struggling. We discussed options, and I began taking antidepressants.
What does your recovery look like?
The pills are not the only way I find happiness. Writing about my experiences helps me cope and process. The gym keeps me healthy, inside and out. I also read plenty of books and enjoy cooking new things. The most important thing to me is making sure I take time to take care of me.
Where are you now?
Recently, I’ve noticed that I’ve been struggling a bit more than usual with my mental health, so I’ve begun seeing a therapist who I’ve seemed to connect well. I’ve gone twice thus far, and we’re working on a roadmap to help me navigate the sea that is cancer survivorship and life.
I continue to write, cook, read, and exercise regularly to help my healing. I speak openly about my mental health struggles in an effort to educate other survivors and to break down stigmas.
One piece of advice you would give someone in a situation like yours trying to decide whether to seek care:
Your body has been through hell; don’t be afraid to ask for help with your mind. I compare it to needing chemo for cancer or a cast for a broken arm. You wouldn’t say no to either of those, but why are people hesitant to try medication for mental health? In my opinion, it is foolish to suffer due to the stigma. If you need medicine, therapy or anything else to help be happy, get the care you need to fix what is wrong with you.
If you’re interested in following Justin’s journey and having a great laugh, here is a list of his amazing outreach:
Mental Health Resources If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, don’t suffer in silence! There are free and affordable resources to help you get through these times. Here are just few options for you below:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255): Trained crisis workers are available to talk 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Your confidential, toll-free call goes to the nearest crisis center in the Lifeline national network.
National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) offers peer-to-peer support groups in most locations. This in-person group experience provides the opportunity for mutual support and positive impact. You can experience compassion and reinforcement from people who relate to your experiences.
Some federal agencies offer resources for identifying practitioners and assistance in finding low cost health services. These include:
Health Resources and Services Administration works to improve access to health care. The website has information on finding affordable healthcare, including health centers that offer care on a sliding fee scale.
Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has information on its website about benefits and eligibility for its programs and how to enroll.
Mental Health and Addiction Insurance Help from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers resources to help answer questions about insurance coverage for mental health care.
Service members and Veterans have unique needs. https://www.mentalhealth.gov/get-help/veterans provides for their specific needs.