by Torsten Koehler, Testicular Cancer Survivor
Cancer survivor Torsten Koehler talks about his experience with his students as a teacher going through cancer. Quotes from his book “Love Your Nuts” are in bold.
When I was diagnosed with testicular cancer I decided to tell my students (age group 11 to 15 years old) because they would have found out anyway as soon as the side effects of chemotherapy kicked in, and I didn’t want rumours or speculations spread in the school community.
Encounters with parents of the students were different than before the cancer diagnosis. As soon as we said hello I realized that he or she knew! After saying hello we were immediately lost for words. Nobody wanted to ask how I was because obviously everybody knew how I was and we (especially adults) don’t handle these kind of situations very well. Students are just honest and if they ask “how are you?” these little ones mean it.
“It was good that I was able to talk about it. I plunged into it to break the awkward silence. It helped me and it helped the others. Once they noticed that I was able to speak about my illness they really wanted to know how I felt. Then the question “how are you” was suddenly appropriate again.”
I met a 12 year old boy in the cancer clinic who had testicular cancer.
“I decided there and then that I would educate the pupils about cancer when the opportunity arose. I had to brief them, and warn them, because all my pupils were around this age.
It was the week when I started to lose my hair in bunches, that I said to them in a physics class, “Ok, guys, today we’ll turn physics into a hygienics lesson.” I knew they loathed the word hygienics. It was exactly the reason why I used it. Promptly one of them said, “But why hygienics? None of us is sick!”
“Yes, that’s what I thought, too,” I answered. Then I put my fingers into what was left of my hair, pulled a little and let the handful of hair float to the floor. I know it was a ghoulish start to a lesson but I immediately had everybody’s attention, exactly as planned. Each of them had to be informed. None of them was to doze through this lesson.
There were boys and girls in my class. I was going to explain testicular cancer and breast cancer to them so that neither the boys nor the girls had reason to feel embarrassed. Or at least it would be equally embarrassing for both sexes. I told them everything: how I had noticed that something was wrong, how I had sperm frozen and about chemotherapy and its side-effects.
“You can notice a cancerous growth only if you regularly run your fingers over your testicles and breasts. If you notice something which wasn’t there before, go tell your mother or father.”
Turning to the boys I said, “All of you play with your balls, don’t you!”
They started to laugh.
“Yes, you are laughing because all of you play around down there. Do it consciously so that you can notice if anything changes. Should you feel a little bump or lump, go to your parents and tell them that you need to see a doctor, because you once had a teacher who told you about this.”
It was good that the students and the community knew. From my side, teaching cancer awareness and talking about it was often my way to deal with the cancer. From their side I had a huge support – parents and students. They visited me in hospital and later at home. “One of the nicest surprises was arranged by my pupils Achim and Ronald. Since visiting hours had already ended they snuck in through the hospital kitchen to bring me a pizza. “Hospital muck can’t taste good,” they grinned.”
Soon thereafter, I turned into a depressed person and decided I had to resign because I couldn’t cope with my work and life anymore. I decided to travel the world. I had done that before and hoped my zest for life would return if I did positive things. Do something for me. What kept me going until the end of the school year were the students and I quote my book: “I still dreaded the last day of school. Having to say goodbye to the pupils was really getting to me. I knew how honest they were. During the past year they had vividly shown me that life is fun, too. I recalled this joie de vivre when I felt bad. Children played, sang, skipped along, quarrelled and made up again, and they squealed with pleasure. That was life. I also wanted to do that again. To squeal with pleasure!
The pupils had given me so much courage – they had given me the courage to live.”
I’d been travelling the world for 2 years and often thought about the students. In between destinations, I worked on a campsite in Munich to earn some travel money again. The school had my Munich address and I received letters and post cards from my former students. What a nice feeling to know that I had touched their lives. I replied with post cards from the different countries I visited.
In 2006 a former student of mine invited me for coffee to thank me for talking about my cancer in class and raising awareness. Because of my lessons, he went to the doctor in time and is saved at the age of 16!
That alone makes it worth standing up for cancer and energizes me to talk balls!
Torsten grew up on a cattle farm in Namibia. He studied teaching and was a teacher and deputy principal for 15 years in Namibia. This 15-year span was interrupted three times in the years 1991, 1997/8 and 2006, when he did what he loves most – travelling through 45 countries on all the continents.
He has been a Cape Town, South Africa resident since 2007. At present he is following his passions – photography and design – after leaving the teaching profession in 2005. You can visit his website at www.love-your-nuts.com.