In October 2016, I discovered a lump on my left testicle. After some prodding from my fiancee, I called a primary-care doctor.
Within two weeks, I was sitting in a urologist's office, expecting bad news.
He got right to the point. “So I am going to be straight with you. You have testicular cancer.”
“Is this something I get a second opinion on?” I asked. I was only 25. I couldn’t believe I really had cancer, especially this kind of cancer.
“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 asked.
“Surgery. We need to remove the affected testicle immediately. We can probably get you in tomorrow.”
I told him I needed some time to think. After all, I had become rather attached to my testicles over the last 25 years. More accurately, they were attached to me. Like most guys, I considered them a manifestation of my manhood, and losing half of that seemed impossible.
I cried when I got home -- one of only two times I would cry throughout my entire cancer journey.
Realizing that I would truly be crazy if I kept my rogue testicle as it slowly killed me, I agreed to have the surgery two days later. Quickly, after a successful procedure, I learned that the most difficult thing about the whole procedure was talking about it.
Think of how often a guy in his 20s uses the word “balls.” If you are taking charge of life, you grab it by the balls. You chickened out? You have no balls.
Guys casually mention balls all the time, but ignore their testicular health. I was beginning to realize that, while jokes are socially acceptable, having serious conversations about testicular health somehow is not.
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 my own initial reaction shows how much men don't want to talk about anything that might make them seem less "manly."
I also knew my story might help change this potentially deadly narrative.
I began telling my friends and family about my newly minted half-sack status. There were jokes -- including my 87-year-old grandfather sending me a Wiffle ball in the mail to “help replace what I was missing -- and comparisons to Lance Armstrong, who needed the same surgery. But, the conversations eventually led where I wanted them to go. Men asked about how to do a self-exam. Women reported that they would be paying more careful attention to their significant others’ testicles.
In one case, a friend said that he would make it a date night with his husband.
Emboldened by my close friends’ reactions, I wanted to take the story to a larger audience, to get more men talking about their health. I decided to start a testicular cancer awareness blog, A Ballsy Sense of Tumor.
Despite a blog name that seems to put it all out there, at first I thought of writing about having cancer, and not specifying where my cancer was. As I thought it through, I realized that I was still perpetuating a harmful narrative: hiding a health problem to maintain a sense of “being a man.”
So I decided to bare all and share with the world that I was now the Amazing Uniballer. (Note to Hollywood: Feel free to co-opt the character for the next Avengers movie.)
I haven’t looked back since the day I pushed “publish” on that first blog post. My initial fears proved groundless — most people said I was more manly for being so open about this hard topic.
Now in remission for nearly two years, I’ve written more than 150 articles on men’s health for my own blog and other publications. It’s my mission to make sure that the ball isn’t dropped on this vital topic.
As I close out here, I ask a simple favor…
Let’s work together to spread light where the sun don’t shine.
Justin Birckbichler is a men’s health advocate and cancer survivor. See his work and contact him through aballsysenseoftumor.com. This guest column appears through our partnership with Inspire, an Arlington, Va., company with condition-specific online support communities for more than a million patients and caregivers.