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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December 21, 2018

Guest Blog: Lacuna Loft CEO Shares

An Easy Self-Care Tip for the Holiday Season


This holiday season, give yourself a gift by being kind to yourself.

Believe me, I know. Self-care is not a piece of cake. Sure, once you hear a tip, it sounds easy enough but all the real work is found in the implementation. Even so, never too late to hear a new, easy self-care tip right? I learned this one when I was in grad school. I’ll admit that I don’t quite have the hang of it yet…but I’m working on it!

When you’re facing a tough day or a tough situation (or both!), try talking to yourself like you would talk to a really good friend, or to your younger self. How would you react to your best friend (or the younger you) if he or she lost that big client or didn’t do well in that race or had a less than stellar day? Or maybe didn’t get all the shopping done or cookies made?

Would you blame them for the mistake? Would you pile on all of the other things that your friend did wrong that day?

I didn’t think so.

Try talking to yourself like you would a very good friend. You are with yourself all the time for goodness sake! Treat yourself like your own best friend!

Nurture yourself and be kind.



You can read the original blog post here.

Check out Lacuna Loft’s website for more blog posts, program information and to stay up to date with their news!


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November 19, 2018

Goodbye Fear, my old BFF :

Letting go of my fear with mental health and addiction.


By David Fuehrer

It would be untrue of me to blame my relationship with fear on cancer.

Although I was diagnosed with cancer twice in my twenties and then sat with my father as he took his last breath from cancer… fear, and more specifically, the fear of not being enough, has been my BFF since childhood.

My strongest memory of this is from my early teens. Growing up, my father was either at work or working on projects around the house. It calmed him.

My dad had a veteran disability rating. It was a severe mental condition for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. (Being the only soldier in your barracks to survive a mortar attack in the middle of the night will do that.) The only time I remember talking about this, is when we were told we couldn’t talk about this.

During one of those occasions while my dad was working, I remember feeling not enough.

We had placed our four-wheeler for sale. It was a source of year-round adventures that defined my childhood. We spent countless hours exploring the woods during the summers and towing a sled through the snow in the winter.

When the would-be buyer arrived at our house to look at the ATV, the duty was mine to negotiate the sale. I failed… The man convinced me how much work the four-wheeler needed. “TLC” he called it. And how over-priced our offer was. I buckled. What I remember is the sinking feeling of letting our family adventure machine leave us for a fraction of what it was worth.

Having a parent with PTSD meant our house was filled with love. Constant, heartwarming love, laughter and happiness. There was also something always just below the surface. And the silence from that was deafening.

Building a mailbox in front of our home, with my dad.

My dad’s motto:

The difficult we do immediately. The impossible just takes a little longer

is a representation of this lifestyle. If I focused on accomplishing big, impossible things, there was no room to dwell on those things just below the surface.

This approach to life worked for me… quite well… to a point. The fear of not being enough pushed me through college degrees, competitive bodybuilding and creating a life that looked well put together.

Once trauma began entering my life, my BFF and I developed a seriously co-dependent affair. An author I admire, Suleika Jaouad once posted:

“If you want to write something good, write what you don’t want the world to know. If you want to write something great, write what you don’t want to know about yourself.”

I’ll share what I don’t want you to know first.

Following my first cancer diagnosis at 25, I turned to steroids to replace my loss of physical strength.

Following my second cancer diagnosis at 30, I turned to Viagra to replace my loss of sexual ability.

Following the loss of my dad to cancer at 35, I turned to wine to push through my emotional pain.

Each of these reactions was driven by my fear of not being enough and needing something to cope with that fear.

Today, at 42 years old, I’m facing the return of an old trauma. One of the members of my family struggles with alcohol and drug addiction. They are unable to ask for help and it’s eating me alive.

I want to return to the ways I coped before. All of them. At the same time. My co-dependent affair with fear is in overdrive.

To quote the words of my friend, David Richman,

“There is nothing like watching a loved one go through agonizing pain and suffering. We all would take pain from them and put it on ourselves if we could, but we can’t. All we can do is better learn to embrace our own pain.”

With Suleika’s words on my mind for months, I’ve been leaning in to discover what it is I don’t want to know about myself. And what I’m learning is that I live in denial about me.

By focusing on the impossible things around me, I neglect the scary things inside me. At a time when I’ve never felt prouder of my life and of our work with GRYT Health, I also have never felt closer to the fear of not being enough.

I’ve been asking myself “why”. Why when things are going so incredible in my marriage and in my work, why now do I feel sidelined and so helpless with one of the most important relationships in my life?

What I don’t want to admit about myself is that “control” is my drug.

Have you seen the movie Hot Tub Time Machine? In response to his father’s death, John Cusack’s character says “I vowed to master the chaos.” That has been my approach to life since childhood.

But I’ve reached a point in my life where “mastering the chaos” no longer works. The stakes are too high. There are too many people involved. And most importantly… I want to embrace life. For all of its miracles and tragedies.

So, I am replacing fear with gryt. On our Facebook page that I look at everyday, it says:

“grit — (n) courage and resolve: strength of character”.

It’s time I started living that.

In response to John Cusack’s comment, his co-star says “You’ve got to embrace the chaos. You’ve got to. That way life may just astonish you.”

This is me, embracing the chaos. Admitting my fear of not being enough to you. And admitting that controlling life does not work, to myself.

This is me, embracing life. This is me, finding my gryt.


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October 6, 2018

Chatbots and Survivorship:

An AppChat Collaboration with Hopelab


Join us as we team up with Hopelab for our Chatbots and Survivorship AppChat. Hosted by Ximena Giesemann, a cancer survivor and doctoral student studying positive psychology at Claremont College, be part of the conversation on Oct 24th, Wednesday, from 8–9 pm ET / 7–8pm CT / 5–6pm PT. Participate LIVE on the Stupid Cancer App, available to download for free, in both the Google Play and App Store.


About Our Moderator

Ximena Giesemann is currently a second-year Ph.D. student in Positive Developmental Psychology at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California. At CGU, she works as a research assistant in the Adolescent Moral Development Lab. She is passionate about using Positive Psychology to create interventions that are aimed at fostering optimal well-being in adolescent and young adult cancer survivors. Most recently, she worked on a project with Hopelab in San Francisco in which she helped to modify a toolkit made to foster a sense of purpose in life in adolescent and young adult cancer survivors.

A cancer survivor herself, Ximena was diagnosed with melanoma at 22. She loves working and interacting with other adolescent and young adult cancer survivors, and believes that following the cancer experience, there exists great potential for post traumatic growth. She is dedicated to helping other adolescent and young adult cancer survivors feel more understood and less alone.


Learn more about our collaborator, Hopelab:

Vivibot is a chatbot specifically built for and co-designed with young cancer survivors.

Inspired by hope, realized by science. Hopelab is a social innovation lab focused on designing science-based technologies to improve the health and well-being of teens and young adults.

Vivibot is designed to help you generate a positive outlook on your future while also providing non-judgemental support through learning helpful coping skills and sharing stories from other survivors after treatment. We worked with young survivors, medical experts, and researchers to better understand the challenges of life after cancer. Because cancer sucks- but life doesn’t have to.

  • Cancer Mindshift: Exploring Psychological Skill Building with Vivibot, a Chatbot for Cancer Survivors
  • A Bot, A Boy, and A Belated Reflection on CancerCon 2018
  • How to Make a Bot Sound Like a Cool Teenager
  • An Evening with Sonja Lyubomirsky — Happiness Expert



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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.