How to Tell Kids Their Teacher Has Cancer

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Listen to “75: How to Tell Kids Their Teacher Has Cancer with Justin Birckbichler” on Spreaker.

Justin Birckbichler is 25 years old. He teaches fourth grade in Virginia, and he recently learned that he has cancer.

What is he doing about this horrendous news? A more appropriate question might be: What is Justin not doing?

He’s not screaming, “Why me?” and “Life’s not fair!” He’s not crying, even though there would certainly be no shame in shedding a few tears. He’s not feeling sorry for himself or blaming anyone. And he is definitely not hiding his illness.

Justin Birckbichler is taking action. He’s talking about his cancer. He’s telling his family, friends, and thousands of people who follow him on Twitter.

And, get this, he’s even telling his students.

How to Tell Kids Their Teacher Has Cancer

Justin blogs about how he told his students, for parents and other interested stakeholders to see:

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….

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Chronicling Cancer

Justin told his students and their parents about his cancer because he doesn’t want them to be afraid. He wants them to be part of his journey and to lend him the support that he knows he needs during his treatment and time away from class.

Justin Birckbichler

Justin Birckbichler

But this courageous teacher isn’t stopping there. He’s telling the world in his serious, yet light-hearted blog, A Ballsy Sense of Tumor, an appropriate title since Justin has testicular cancer.

I was diagnosed with Stage IIB Nonseminoma cancer in November 2016. It’s a form of testicular cancer that had spread to my lymph nodes. I had surgery to remove the original mass on October 28th and will be beginning chemotherapy on November 28th to get rid of the remaining cancerous cells.

Naturally, my first priority after hearing my diagnosis was to tell my friends and family. However, after everyone in my life had taken care of when it came to knowing what was happening with my health, I wanted to keep going. I went semi-public with my diagnosis by sharing it on Instagram in early November.

However, I had yet to share my news on Twitter. My Instagram account is private and largely comprised of friends from high school and college and distant family members. I only have about 100 followers, but on Twitter, I have more than six thousand. This is a huge reach and could have a real impact. I began thinking about using this reach to spread awareness about testicular cancer, a topic that is rarely discussed, as is men’s health in general.

The decision to potentially tell six thousand people is terrifying. While I have no problem Tweeting about my opinions on homework (it’s in how you use it), my stance on standardized testing (it’s too much), or my feeling on GSuite (I love it), letting people in personally would be a new order. I also didn’t want cancer to become my only identity.

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What You Can Do Tomorrow

Justin Birckbichler suggests these strategies for facing cancer at home and in the classroom:

  1. Be open and honest: Justin suggests telling students, so they have all the details from the source, rather than being confused by rumors.
  2. Conduct regular self-checks: Justin felt a lump during a routine, regular self-check. This simple practice most likely saved his life.
  3. Seek support: Justin actively sought the support of his principal, guidance counselor, and colleagues before telling his students. Now, these people are more than just stakeholders; they are his support team. Justin also asks parents who know teachers with cancer or other major illnesses to lend support, because they need it.

Follow Justin’s Journey

Connect with Justin Birckbichler on Twitter @Mr_B_Teacher. Read and share his cancer treatment and recovery updates at aballsysenseoftumor.com. To speak with Justin or show him personal support, email him here or send him some love in our comment section below or on our Facebook page here.

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Author: Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is the Founder and CEO of Times 10 Publications, which produces the popular Hack Learning Series — books that provide right-now solutions for teachers and learners. Mark is the author or publisher of dozens of books, including Bestseller Hacking Education: 10 Quick Fixes for Every School. Barnes presents internationally on assessment, connected education, and Hack Learning. Join more than 125,000 interested educators who follow @markbarnes19 on Twitter.