Sunday, November 20, 2016

I Have Cancer: Telling My Students

After being out for so long, I was
happy to see I made the "Did You Know"
board!
I hadn’t seen my students in nearly two weeks and I wanted to get out of the house. I also knew I had to come clean to them about my surgery.

As I arrived to school, I met briefly with Brian and the school counselor, Laura. I asked them to both join me for morning meeting as I shared the news and to look over the letter I was planning to send to parents. They both said they could be there and that the letter looked good.

The students began trickling in at normal time. I was greeted with hugs and smiles. Carson, whose mother works in the building, was first. He came in to drop off his stuff and saw me. A second later, he ran out of the room to get the other “teacher kids.” When Sophia walked in, her face lit up and she rushed over to me. Many were surprised to see me with a cane, but this surprise would pale in comparison to what was to come.

The late bell rang and the video announcements rolled. Knowing that the transition would not be easy, I started in on morning meeting. I rattled off the normal, mundane things - expressing how happy I was to see them again, thankfully they earned good sub reports, and detailed the daily schedule. I shared that I would be a little slower in my movement but the cane was helpful. Brian and Laura walked in and took a seat. It was go time.

“So I wanted to tell you more about my surgery. The whole reason I had to have surgery is because I have cancer.” Somehow, being on the other side of those words didn’t make it any easier.

Instant tears from some. Bewildered looks from others. Awkward glances from most. I continued.

“The important thing for you to know is that this is curable. I will need chemotherapy, which is a form of medicine that will kill all the cancer. I need to do this so I get better. I don’t know how long I will be out, but you will be taken care of. Mr. Fitzgerald, Mrs. Hoover, the fourth grade team, and all your old teachers will support you. You have each other. I know it is not easy to hear that your teacher has cancer. I want to answer any questions you have.”

Hands shot up. Was I in pain right now? Yes, from my surgery, but not from cancer. How did I know something was wrong? I felt something wrong on my body and went to the doctor. How long will you be out? I don’t know. Will the chemo hurt? It might, but I can handle it. Would my hair fall out? It might, and that would make me sad, but I would survive. (Later, a student came up to stay that if I lost my hair, he would shave his. He has a buzz cut already, but the sentiment was cute.)

Laura reading The Can in Cancer
Many students already had experience with cancer from grandparents and other family members. In most cases, as with my own grandfather, cancer got the best of them. I reassured them that it most likely wouldn’t happen to me. They had their stories; I had mine. Blending stories and the straightforward facts seemed to be the best way to handle this.

A somber silence hung over the class. I gave them a moment to process.

“Right now some of you are angry. Maybe you’re sad or shocked or confused. You might be blocking it out. All of those are ok. When I found out, I went through all of those emotions. I want you to know that I am here for you. If you have questions today, ask. If they come to you tonight, have your parents message me whenever. I will answer questions you have whenever I can.”

A hand went up, “Where is your cancer?”

Crap. I wasn’t prepared for that. “It was in one part of my body and has spread to others.”

“Yeah, but where did it start?”

Brian stepped in to save me. “Some part of this cancer Mr. B wants to keep private. Your parents will be getting more information and can discuss further details with you.”

There were no more questions at that moment. I realized it was a good point to stop and try to transition to Virginia Studies. Operative word being try. We were starting a new unit about Jamestown, Halfheartedly, the students began on a Jamestown HyperDoc. I couldn’t blame them. Who can focus on the reasons for settlement when they just heard that news? After giving it an honest effort, it was time to take them to gym.

After gym class, we happened to have guidance. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Laura had planned to do a lesson on cyberbullying, but switched it to discussing more about cancer. She had brought a book called The Can in Cancer, which was a cute story about a boy who went through cancer. It helped the kids relate, and she then took the students to do something secret for me. (The next day, I’d find out that they had created inspirational posters to cover our classroom walls.)

"Can In Cancer" posters
The physical teaching of the day was ok. I had to teach from a chair for part of the day, which is not my usual style. The kids quickly became attuned to my pain attack face and would rush to grab me a chair. They wanted to help me stand up and bring me things. It’s really cute and awe-inspiring to see how students will look beyond themselves to help others in need.

To put it simply, I knew telling them would suck for both them and me, but I always preach honesty and openness to them. I couldn’t be a hypocrite. Although my students were filled with emotion that day, I was more or less devoid of it. Was I masking it? Maybe for their benefit. Had I still not fully processed this momentous thing had been thrust upon me? Most likely. Despite my uncertainty in my feelings, it was the right thing to do. Paired with my budding desire to become an advocate for under-discussed men’s health issues, I knew I had an opportunity to model open medical discussions for my students.
Maybe none of them would be touched by cancer beyond me, but at least they would have a good example for how to deal with trying times.

In early November 2016, I was diagnosed with Stage IIb Nonseminoma cancer, a form of testicular cancer that has spread to my lymph nodes. I had surgery to remove the original tumor, but it had already spread. Soon, I’ll be undergoing chemotherapy to eradicate the cancer. I am documenting my journey from discovery to being cancer-free on aballsysenseoftumor.com. I invite you to join me as I process and move through this. 

49 comments:

  1. So sorry to hear about this but I know you have the'balls' to kick it to the curb. Will miss your class posts but will join you on your other blog. Take care and all the best!

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    1. Love the pun, Lisa! Thanks for your support.

      I'm happy to hear you'll be joining my journey and help spread awareness at www.aballsysenseoftumor.com.

      Delete
  2. Wow, what an incredibly powerful example of the power of authenticity and the strength of vulnerability in a role model/leader. I teach grad students and can only hope I would be so courageous, thoughtful and eloquent if faced with a similar situation. Best of luck to you!

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    1. Thanks, Stephanie. It wasn't easy, but I'm glad I did it.

      I hope you'll join my my journey and help spread awareness at www.aballsysenseoftumor.com.

      Delete
  3. Justin, thank you so much for having the courage to tell your story. You will be a living testimony to your students and your PLN. My prayers are with you and your fiance for strength, patience, healing, and an excellent medical team.

    Your digital breakout pal,
    Marilyn . . .

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    1. Thank you, Marilyn, I appreciate the kind words and support.

      Please consider following my journey and help spread awareness at www.aballsysenseoftumor.com.

      Delete
  4. My prayers and thoughts are with you and your family. You are are true blessing to your students and your profession. Stay strong, stay focused, stay you.
    Blessings.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you very much.

      Feel free to follow my journey and help spread awareness at www.aballsysenseoftumor.com.

      Delete
  5. You are in my thoughts. Thank you for sharing this experience and how you told your students.

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    1. Thanks, Tom. I hope no one else has to have this conversation, but I know others will. My goal is to help them.

      Looking forward to your support of my journey and help spread awareness at www.aballsysenseoftumor.com.

      Delete
  6. I'm sorry to hear your news, Justin. That's a detour I went through myself just as I was starting at the Faculty of Ed. It's so hard to say those words, I can't imagine telling my class. Thanks for sharing and inspiring us all. Your PLN is here with you! You can totally do this.

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    1. Thank you. I can imagine how it was for you telling the Faculty of Ed.

      Please join my journey and help spread awareness at www.aballsysenseoftumor.com.

      Delete
  7. Keeping you in my thoughts and sending positive vibes your way. You've got this!

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    1. Thank you! I appreciate those vibes.

      Looking forward to sharing my journey and helping to spread awareness at www.aballsysenseoftumor.com.

      Delete
  8. Justin, man, this was a shock to read! I knew you had surgery, but I thought it was for something like a hernia maybe. I'm saddened to hear that it's cancer, but also heartened that you're already fighting it with typical Birckbichler grace and humor (awesome title for your new blog by the way :) Since meeting you at VSTE last year, it's been great getting to know you better through your videos and blog posts. You are an inspiration to me as a fellow teacher. Thanks for your willingness to share this with not only your students, but with all of your followers. I know it will be a difficult road ahead, but you are loved and supported by so many! I hope to connect with you again at VSTE in a few weeks!

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    1. Dave, I emailed you further, but I also wanted to thank you so much for your support!

      Excited to have you along for my journey and help spread awareness at www.aballsysenseoftumor.com.

      Delete
  9. My thoughts are with you, my friend. You got this!!! Thanks so much for sharing.

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    1. Thanks, Sarah. A necessary conversation, for sure.

      Looking forward to having your support and the EduMatch community on my journey and helping to spread awareness at www.aballsysenseoftumor.com.

      Delete
  10. Justin, So inspired by your bravery and positivity during this tough time. Your students are lucky to have such a great role model! Thoughts and prayers are with you through this journey. -Katie

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    1. Thanks, Katie! I'll lock up this cancer like Alcatraz (that was a really lame attempt at a joke.)

      Excited to have you along for my journey and helping me spread awareness at www.aballsysenseoftumor.com.

      Delete
  11. Hi Justin, I had to have a similar conversation with my high school students when I was diagnosed with breast cancer six years ago. It was a scary year, but the support I felt from my colleagues, students and their families really helped me. Everyone's cancer journey is different, but I hope you get a similar outpouring of support. Wishing you a good outcome!

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    1. Catie, I'm glad to see I'm in good company. The support so far has made this a positive experience.

      Looking forward to having you along for my journey and helping me spread awareness at www.aballsysenseoftumor.com.

      Delete
  12. Sharing this on my book's FB page and thanking you for your example, your honesty, your vulnerability. Prayers are coming your way as you stand tall on the days that you can and let us hold you up on the days when you can't. Your class family will forever remember this day and your courageous conversation with them. Barbara

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    1. Thanks for sharing, Barbara. What's under my cape? Courage and the support of others.

      Excited to have you along for my journey and helping me spread awareness at www.aballsysenseoftumor.com.

      Delete
  13. It sounds like you have the attitude to beat this and help others along the way. I don't know you except through twitter. I'll keep you in my prayers and follow your blog. I'm glad you were able to tell your students the truth. I remember my principal saying to me when I was in this situation, "What are you going to tell the kids?" My response, "Well I was thinking I'd tell them I had Breast Cancer" She was a little shocked I think that I wanted to share it with them. But the support I got was amazing, and kids are strong. Good Luck!!

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    1. I always will maintain honesty is the best policy. I'm glad you did the same.

      Excited to have you following my journey and helping me spread awareness at www.aballsysenseoftumor.com.

      Delete
  14. Thanks for sharing this, Justin. I know you have a journey ahead of you, and I'm grateful that you're taking us along. Lots of love, light, and hugs to you, my friend.

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    1. Thank you. It'll be quite the journey, but with a good outcome.

      Please consider following my journey and helping me spread awareness at www.aballsysenseoftumor.com.

      Delete
  15. Hi neighbor! I just wanted to let you know I've been thinking about you a lot lately and to thank you for sharing your journey with us and for raising awareness. If there is ever anything I can do to help you or to help you raise awareness, please let me know. You have my number! I know you have a tough journey ahead, but focus on the positives. You will beat this and be a stronger person because of it. Sending you love and hugs, my favorite neighbor!

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    1. Hey neighbor! Wanna bring me some food? I appreciate your thoughts and support.

      I hope you'll be following my journey and helping me spread awareness at www.aballsysenseoftumor.com.

      Delete
  16. Justin, it's been a while and to be have this news as the first in a while saddened me at first. I know your passion and spirit to make this world a better place will prevail. I like to remind my friends a saying, on a given day, at least a dozen people think about you. You're in our thoughts. All the best and let's talk soon!

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    1. Thanks for your continued support, my man. I look forward to having you along with me on my journey at aballsysenseoftumor.com.

      Delete
  17. Justin, you have taught your students more than you'll ever know. Best wishes.

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    1. Thanks, Peter. This experience will teach them so much more than any set of standards could.

      Feel free to follow the full journey at aballsysenseoftumor.com.

      Delete
  18. All the best to you! My husband also had testicular cancer and is about to celebrate 10 years cancer free. You can doi this!

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    1. Thank you and well done to him!

      Feel free to follow the full journey at aballsysenseoftumor.com.

      Delete
  19. Prayers for you, your family, and your students. I lost a student 7 years ago to cancer & cancer sucks. Fight hard!!

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    1. Cancer does suck - no way around that. Thanks for your support.

      Feel free to follow the full journey at aballsysenseoftumor.com.

      Delete
  20. I was two weeks into my radiation treatments when a parent of of one of my volleyball girls came up to me after a match and said that her other daughter was having a really hard time. I knew at that moment that it was time for me to have the "talk" with each of my classes. It was one of the hardest things that I had ever done. Stay strong!

    Mike

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    1. It's definitely not a fun talk, but our students (and we) are better off for it.

      Feel free to follow the full journey at aballsysenseoftumor.com.

      Delete
  21. Mr B your such a great teacher! Kick cancers butt! Connor and I are thinking of you

    Amy Cisler

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    1. Thanks, Amy! Hope all is well with you and the boys. You can tell Connor that Conner has been so snuggly this whole time!

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    2. Connor says tell Conner that he misses him and you both! Boys and I doing good Connor is excelling in middle school straight As!
      We hope you get to feeling better you will be in our thoughts

      Delete
  22. The truth is a powerful teaching tool. I was a College Cosmetology Instructor of 6 years when I got the call from my doctor that I had a brain tumor. Instantly I was flooded with the normal reactions of fear, disbelief, anger, and helplessness. It was lunch time when my MRI results were called in to me that the tumor was benign but a follow up appointment was needed with a neurosurgeon. I had to return to class with a game face I thought-yeah right! I was a mess and the students immediately picked up on my emotional state. At that moment I reached out to my class and shared my tearful fears. In the months to come I prepared for my surgery just weeks prior to Christmas. The last day before our winter break I arrived to class and my desk was overflowing with Loving gifts for my daughter. It looked like Santa made a special delivery! I had cards of encouragement and thanks for my courage. Oh my goodness did I cry humble tears of joy and appreciation. Surgery day came and my entire class stayed in touch with my husband for the 14 hour surgery. It is amazing to reflect on how we impact our students; although I lost the majority of my hearing and have facial nerve damage as the result of removing the acoustic neuroma, I am joyful for life and the ability to teach once again. I share my story orientation day with each class so they know that if they put there mind to it, they can overcome anything in life with a positive attitude.

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    1. That is suck an empowering and uplifting story. Thank you for sharing.

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  23. Justin. Thank you for sharing this. And I'm sorry I didn't see this earlier. As hard as it must have been, your students are so much better off because you explained it to them. Their collective good vibes will help you through this. Please take care of yourself and know that I am among many who are praying for your full recovery& sending healing thoughts your way. I will look for updates on your blog.You got this!

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  24. Justin, Thank you of sharing. I am a 49 year old woman who thought she had hemorrhoids, saw a doctor on Jan 3, 2017 found out I had Cancer, and had surgery Jan 10, 2017 and will start 29 days chemo/Rad on Feb 15, 2017. It has been a whirlwind to say the least. CAT scans have reveled no node involve so I'm lucky in that respect. Will say a prayer for you and hang in there!
    Catherine in Philadelphia

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