May 20, 2019

Depression–A Cancer Survivor’s Story

Guest Blog By: Justin Birckbichler


On my testicular cancer awareness blog, A Ballsy Sense of Tumor, I have written extensively what it’s like to experience depression as a cancer survivor. I eventually recognized the signs, asked for help, and went on antidepressants. While I am happy to say they are definitely working, I only knew to ask for them since this wasn’t my first time battling depression.

I’ve alluded to this in past writings, but I fought with clinical depression during my sophomore and junior years in high school. However, I’ve never written a full account of this trying time, and in the wake of the unfortunate events with Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, and countless others throughout the past decade, I’m ready to take that leap in hopes of letting someone else know to ask for help.

For context, I grew up in an upper-middle class family. I am the oldest of three kids and my parents are still together. I was in the gifted program since third grade, participated in a number of sports, and school came rather easy to me. In essence, I was the definition of privilege and from the outside, I had no “reason” to be unhappy.

It started slowly enough. Around the start of sophomore year, I realized I was increasingly feeling sad and hopeless. Nothing seemed to bring me joy and I always managed to find the negative in every situation. I couldn’t figure out why this was happening, but I felt too ashamed to open up, since I had a pretty good life. However, there was a lot of pain inside that I just didn’t know how to manage.

I turned to self-harm to try to let out some of this pain. This is the first time I am publicly admitting this, and before this writing, less than five people in the world knew I did this. I didn’t want to cut myself since that would leave marks, which would make it hard to keep under wraps. I had done a stunt previously where I sprayed Axe body spray on my hand and lit it on fire. It didn’t cause pain if you did it as a stunt, but if you let it burn long enough, it hurt like hell. I did this a handful of times. It didn’t seem to help, yet it became a habit.

I suppose I subconsciously wanted to let some of this struggle out. I remember one day I put up an “Away Message” on AOL Instant Messenger that was beyond the scope of the normal, teenage angst. When I returned, one of my friends (who I later found out had depression himself) had said, “Um, Justin, you might be depressed.” Even though I was self-harming from time to time, I didn’t believe that I could be depressed. Again — I had a good life; what right did I have to be depressed?

At some point, this internal pain began to be too much. I began thinking that I just didn’t want to live anymore since it was too hard, even though nothing external was “wrong.” I started experiencing thoughts of suicide.

While I never actually attempted it, I had concrete plans on how I would do it. It’s still hard to walk past the area in my parents’ home where I was planning to do it. My little sister is what ended up saving my life. She looks up to me and I didn’t want to let her down. My love for her was stronger than my hate for myself.

Reaching this point was a pivotal moment. I finally admitted something was wrong and I needed help. Yet, I didn’t know how to ask. I decided to stop wearing a mask of being ok on the outside. I moved a little slower. Sighed a little bit more. Smiled less. One day, I flopped down dramatically on the couch and my mom finally asked if I wanted to talk to a therapist. Even though I was most likely weeks away from taking my own life, I couldn’t directly ask.

I agreed to get help and began seeing a therapist. I continued harming myself throughout the first few sessions and thoughts of suicide still lingered. Eventually, I admitted both of these to the therapist and we decided to start me on a course of antidepressants.

Initially, my dosage was wrong and I experienced a panic attack not too long after beginning them. I freaked out because my mom told me to go to bed and I wasn’t ready yet. I locked myself in my room and began hyperventilating. My dad literally kicked down my door and carried me outside to get fresh air. I calmed down, the doctors adjusted my meds, and the meds took hold. I continued going to the therapist and this one-two punch of medication and therapy helped raise me out of depression.

I don’t remember exactly when I got off of the medication, but it was an uneventful process. I did not slip back into depression, and had no problems coming off of them.

While this experience was probably the hardest in my life, and that’s saying a lot since I faced testicular cancer at 25, it ended up helping me recognize the symptoms early on during my survivorship phase of cancer.

I know that having depression at a young age puts me at risk for a recurrence later in life, and this study from 2017 that said about 20% of cancer survivors experience PTSD symptoms within six months of diagnosis. The CDC also reports that cancer survivors take anxiety and depression medication at almost twice the rate of the general population. Basically, it was a perfect storm of risk factors and I’m glad I knew these figures.

This time, I asked for help and antidepressants. I’m happy to say I am still on the meds and not feeling effects of depression. Experiencing the episode in high school helped me advocate for myself earlier before it got worse.

In addition to being a testicular cancer survivor, I am a fourth-grade teacher. I noticed one of my students seemed very upset, distant, and prone to tears. I requested a conference with his parents to discuss these episodes and tried to recommend they take him for further evaluation. They told me that they give him everything they wanted, love him unconditionally, and he has no reason to be sad. In a moment of “I’m not sure I should do this,” I shared that what I had experienced (leaving out the self-harm and thoughts of suicide parts) since I had “no reason to be sad” too. I saw something change in their eyes and I hope it may have paid off.

You can’t always tell if someone is experiencing depression from the outside. Like I said, I had a prime life and no real reason to be upset. Depression is a chemical imbalance in your brain and it’s always influenced by external factors. Asking if a person is feeling okay won’t always work, either. They might not even be aware of their own feelings or may hide it out of a certain feeling of stigma. My best advice is to be there for that individual and to be non-judgemental. In 2019, we should be treating mental health as a serious issue and stop the stigma surrounding it.

I hope by sharing my story, even one person realizes that it’s okay to ask for help and doesn’t feel they need to suffer in silence. I compare taking care of mental health to needing chemo for cancer or a cast for a broken arm. No one would blink twice about treating either of those conditions, but why does society not have the same attitude towards mental health?


Help is available from anywhere in the United States via Crisis Text Line (text HOME to 741741) or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273–8255. Either service is free, confidential and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.


About the Author

Justin, in his high school days, with his favorite teacher

Justin Birckbichler is a men’s health activist, 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, he has been passionate about sharing his story to spread awareness about testicular cancer and promote open conversation about men’s health.

In addition to his work through ABSOT, Justin’s writing has appeared in Cure Magazine, I Had Cancer, The Mighty, The Good Men Project, Stupid Cancer, and more. His work with awareness of men’s health has been featured by Healthline, Ball Boys, and various other organizations. In 2017, ABSOT won an award for the Best Advocacy and Awareness Cancer Blog in 2017 and Justin was recognized as one of 15 People Who Raised Cancer Awareness in 2017. He was also one of the selected attendees of HealtheVoices18.

Justin also serves as a member of the Strategic Advisory Board for the Cancer Knowledge Network and as a board member of the Young Adult Cancer Survivor Advisory Board for Lacuna Loft.

Outside of the “cancer world,” Justin is a teacher, amateur chef, technology aficionado and avid reader. He lives in Fredericksburg, VA with his wife, cat, and dog.

Connect with him on Instagram (@aballsysenseoftumor), on Twitter (@absotTC), on Facebook (Facebook.com/aballsysenseoftumor), on YouTube, or via email (justin@aballsysenseoftumor.com).


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January 16, 2019

What to Do After a Cancer Diagnosis: Survivors’ Tricks of the Trade

By Shelley Nolden, GRYT Chairwoman


Navigating life after a diagnosis seems impossible. Especially when you’re new and fresh out of the gate. Below you’ll find things that I found to be helpful after I was diagnosed with APL that were passed on to me. They’re small in the scheme of things but can make a big difference in your day to day. You’ll get through this. Keep your chin up. You are not alone.

Choose to be happy. When you fight for your life, you reflect on what you’re fighting for. The biggest prize is being there for your family. But life’s small pleasures are spoils of the war as well. Cancer survivors appreciate each day, instead of always thinking about tomorrow. They are spontaneous and choose to be happy.

Have a positive mindset. The common theme of the advice I’ve received is mindset, and how much of a difference it can make. Mindset, both in terms of staying positive during the treatment process and any potential setbacks, as well as a general outlook on life.

Take one step at a time. My grandma, who battled kidney cancer that spread to her lungs, gave me an excellent piece of practical advice: take the disclaimers that come with the drug packages with a grain of salt. The drug companies list every possible side effect, and there’s no reason to let the mind go there. If you feel pain, deal with it then, not before. In general, she ignored the negatives that come with cancer as best she could. Her positive attitude through it was amazing. She made a great cancer buddy for me.

Laugh. A woman my age, who is in her second year of breast cancer treatments, told me a story about a mosquito. It landed on her arm shortly after she’d received a dose of a very intense chemo drug. Instead of the mosquito flying away in victory with its meal of blood, it shriveled up and died. Now that’s some powerful sh*t. In her words:

“It was so awful and hilarious at the same time, and it reminded me just how strong we can be.”

Find a community. Cancer is so isolating. Finding others who get it can help you when you feel like you’re hitting rock bottom. Depression after cancer is common, so if you’re unsure about where to turn, hearing others have been there can be comforting. It can also be helpful to hear from them what common things work and what doesn’t!

Have some more survivorship tricks of the trade? Email us at aerial@grythealth.com and we’ll add them to this list!


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July 26, 2018

So, What Now?

Post Anxiety and Depression AppChat Support Resources from The Progressive Institute


SUPPORT RESOURCES

Are you interested in finding a mental health therapist?

Try one of these websites:

Are you in need of crisis support?

Contact the National Suicide Hotline at 1–800–799–7233

or

text the Crisis Text Line at 741–741.

Are you looking for general information?

Contact the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) at 240–485–1001.

Are you interested in taking an online screening for depression?

Head over to the National Cancer Institute’s website at

OR

call them at 1–800–4-Cancer.

You can also contact the GRYT team, at aerial@grythealth.com if you have any questions.

July 23, 2018

GRYT Health Presents: Managing Anxiety and Depression Through Cancer with Progressive Diagnostics…


Thursday, July 26th, from 8–9pm ET, GRYT Health will be partnering with Progressive Diagnostics, as we discuss managing anxiety and depression during/after a cancer diagnosis.

Read these five quick statistics on the impact of cancer, mental health and persons affected by cancer. Then be a part of the conversation with licensed clinical psychologist, Kate and her colleague, Greg.

•25% of cancer survivors experience symptoms of depression and up to 45% experience anxiety.¹

•Many also experience symptoms meeting the criteria of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).²

•Cancer survivors who are depressed are twice as likely to die prematurely as those who are not depressed.³

•Psychological stress can promote a tumor’s growth and cause cancer to metastasize to other areas of the body.⁴

•Between a 3-year period (2010–13), 2.5 million cancer survivors nationwide (US) had used antidepressants. This equates to nearly 1 in 5 survivors taking medication for depression or anxiety years later.⁵

Meet the team from Progressive Diagnostics who will be leading this discussion:

Greg , the Director of Operations and Mental Health Initiatives at The Progressive Institute


“I have a master’s degree in psychology and have worked in various leading treatment settings in the Northeast, focusing my efforts on understanding and treating anxiety, depression and addiction. I am currently applying this understanding towards studying and developing a program aimed at preserving mental health and wellness in the cancer community. My wife and I are originally from Philadelphia, PA and moved to Connecticut to peruse our passions — teaching special education being hers and revolutionizing the mental health field being mine.

I find inspiration in the strength people discover within themselves when overcoming life’s challenges.”

Kate, the Clinical Director at The Progressive Institute


“I have a master’s degree in clinical therapy, with 20+ years’ experience in not for profit and community-based agencies, private practice, and mental health advocacy and prevention groups.I’ve come to understand that the cancer population stands to gain the most from proper mental health care, but that traditional cancer diagnosis and treatment fail the cancer community by not recognizing this need.

I believe we have the knowledge, determinations, and capability to change this paradigm by treating the whole person and not just the physical manifestations of the cancer.

I reside with my loving family in Connecticut and am enriched every day by my experiences with clients and their families.”

Progressive Diagnostics is currently in a research and development phase and will be hosting a series of these events throughout the remainder of the year. If anyone is interested in being included in future announcements and/or beta emails, please let us know by filling this form out.

Join the conversation by downloading the Stupid Cancer App (available for both iOS and Android) and entering the AppChat Discussion Chatroom. We’ll see you on the app, Thursday, July 26th, 8–9pm ET!

¹ National Cancer Institute, via Psychology Today article (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/nurturing-self-compassion/201702/neglecting-mental-health-in-cancer-treatment-0)

²National Cancer Institute, via Psychology Today article (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/nurturing-self-compassion/201702/neglecting-mental-health-in-cancer-treatment-0)

³Journal of the National Cancer Institute, https://academic.oup.com/jnci/article/106/1/djt446/2518142

National Cancer Institute (https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/coping/feelings/stress-fact-sheet)

Journal of Clinical Oncology, http://ascopubs.org/doi/full/10.1200/JCO.2016.67.7690