by Justin Birckbichler
There is something magical and special about the holiday season. However, in December 2016, instead of hanging ornamental balls from the tree, I was in the thick of completing chemotherapy to battle the cancer that had spread from my testicles to my lymph nodes.
My battle with cancer isn’t the only history of trying times in the holiday season. In high school, I struggled with pretty severe clinical depression. One of my lowest points during my struggle with depression was around the holidays in 2007. I was angry, sad, apathetic, and just all around down. I was in therapy and on anti-depressants to help and eventually came through a stronger person. However, the holidays were something that helped me rally and keep on living.
Between cancer and depression, I don’t think many would argue with me if I became the Grinch or Scrooge. (I would only be okay with being Scrooge if it was the version from Muppets Christmas Carol – the greatest of all versions.) But I don’t hate the holidays – I continue to love and embrace them. While facing the winter celebrations during chemo greatly differs from a healthy holiday, I lived by three guiding principles that helped me make the best of it, with my Christmas cheer intact.
Find what brings you joy in the holidays
I like putting up thousands of lights a la Clark Griswold, constantly crank Christmas tunes, and watch a different Christmas movie each day leading up to the big day. I take ugly sweaters very seriously and spend hours designing and creating new ones each year. One evening after chemo, I made one with a chestnut roasting on an open fire. Seemed appropriate, given that my own chestnut was getting a fair amount of roasting with the various cocktails being pumped into me.
For Christmas, I received many great things I really wanted, but my favorite gift was a Flipazoo, a stuffed animal panda that turns into a dragon (otherwise known as a Pandragon) from my little sister. That’s right – my favorite gift was designed for 7 year olds. To this day, I still sleep with it regularly.
It wasn’t about the things – it was about enjoying and living in the moment. Individually, none of those things are inherently special. But together, they form the perfect blend that can’t stop me from smiling. Find your Pandragon – what lights up your heart?
Savor the moments you feel good
Soon after Christmas, I began my second cycle of chemo. My nurse told me that cycle two would have “more” side effects than cycle one, and she wasn’t kidding. I was feeling bloated and crappy by day three and developed a new side effect – uncontrollable hiccups for a day. I also had a more metallic taste in my mouth and less of a desire to drink water. I slept for a lot of the time to help feel better.
I tried to maintain a positive outlook, but I just didn’t feel great by the midpoint of the week. It was a stark contrast to the merriment and wonder I had felt just four days prior on Christmas day. In 2015, I had spent New Year’s Eve with Mallory in our apartment, steaming up crab legs and enjoying some hard ciders. New Year’s 2016 was spent in the hospital. It wasn’t necessarily a bad experience – I got room service as part of my stay.
After many hours, I arrived back home to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Surprisingly, I still had an appetite (which I generally didn’t by dinner time). I had a steak, expertly seasoned by Mallory and adequately cooked by my mother (the adequate cooking has more to do with that fact that I wasn’t allowed to have my steaks medium rare like I prefer due to having to stay healthy). Despite the steak not being exactly what I wanted, I was happy to have had an appetite.
While chemo is physically tough, there are always eyes of the storm to look for. Having an appetite while I usually didn’t was what kept me fueled in the physically taxing times. Maybe it’s not a steak for you, but find those things that poke through the darkness and hold onto them.
Look to the future, but honor the present and past
The next morning, I woke up. It was now 2017, which was going to be a big year, even before this. Prior to cancer, 2017 was known as the year Mallory and I were getting married. (Spoiler – it went off without a hitch.)
However, 2017 also became the year I beat cancer. I got a second chance at life and have since made a lot of drastic improvements, such as a greater focus on my fitness, a new sense of purpose, and more intentionality with how I spend my time.
I didn’t want to minimize what was happening during that time. My cancer was real and needed to be taken care of. But hope and looking towards an end to this battle was the third thing that kept me going.
What’s your goal for the next year? Make it a resolution that counts – and will stick with you much longer than the ever popular “lose 15 pounds.”
Justin Birckbichler is a fourth grade teacher, testicular cancer survivor, and the founder of aBallsySenseofTumor.com. From being diagnosed in November 2016 at the age of 25, to finishing chemo in January 2017, to being cleared in remission in March 2017, he has been passionate about sharing his story to spread awareness and promote open conversation about men’s health. Connect with him on Instagram (@aballsysenseoftumor), on Twitter (@absotTC), or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).