Will Joyce had gotten involved with Movember years before their issues hit close to home. He was a philanthropic coordinator at a university, and would recruit volunteers. But he never really understood the true power of the organization until his diagnosis.
Will was diagnosed with third stage testicular cancer in February of 2017. Within four days of the diagnosis, he had surgery to remove the testicle, and a month later, had to go through an intensive, 9-week chemotherapy treatment.
The treatment took an intense toll on Will – since he was one of the younger, healthier candidates, he received a more aggressive round of chemo. When he recovered, he had abdominal surgery to remove the remaining mass in his lymph nodes.
Fortunately, he beat it this past September, but the journey hasn’t come to an end. It’s more about creating a new normal. At the time, Will and his fiancé had just bought their first house together, and before the diagnosis had gotten engaged. While the diagnosis clearly affected Will’s physical health, it also took a toll on his mental health
“It was tough. It feels like the ground falling out underneath you. You feel like you have your whole life ahead of you, and something unexpected like this makes you feel like everything is endangered.” But he as lucky, having his fiancé side-by-side as his partner for this entire rollercoaster of a journey.
“Me and her got the news together. I went into a one-track thought process of getting done what needed to be done in terms of treatment. I don’t know if I let myself work through the emotions at the time. I just took the information with a “we got this” attitude, but honestly, nothing can really prepare you mentally for something like this. My fiancé was a real force of nature this year. This wasn’t an easy thing to go through“.
They were both scared – Will explains that he had steadfast motivation to do with his own treatment and initiative, but a caregiver in that situation can feel a bit more helpless. Luckily, through communication and trust, they made it through to the other side. “It brought us together more than it drove us itself.”
Without her, the beast of fear that came with cancer would have been even more difficult for Will. Fear can grow and infect you – it’s easy for your mind to run away with you and take the unknowns to a level that only stresses you out more and creates anxiety. “We vowed to share whatever we were scared of, even if we thought it would upset one another. Often, we were scared of the same thing so it just created more solidarity and trust.”
Will wants people to know that Isolating yourself through something like this is the worst thing you can do and only grows the monster of fear that comes with such a diagnosis. Reaching out to your support network and loved ones is vital.
“The idea of ‘manning up’ and getting through it is probably the worst thing you could ever do. You want to go into a hole when something like this happens – talking about it makes it more real. Our instinct, especially as guys, is to internalize these things. I’ve shared things and felt like I shouldn’t be, but those tough conversations are part of conquering that fear. As soon as you say the words out loud, the fear loses its power, instead of letting it fester.’
Will was lucky to have not just his fiancé, but his parents, friends, and extended family, who took care of his mom and dad in this startling time of turmoil. His illness was never the elephant in the room.
“I have a group of 5 amazing guys that I’ve been buddies with since high school. We’ve been through a lot together. Of course, it was easier to talk to some than others, but I’m a pretty open guy and made sure they were updated every step of the way, because I know how invested they were in it, and how much they care about me. You never want to build walls.”
Will suggests embracing resources offered at hospitals or treatment centers, if you don’t have family or a partner to reach out to for support. Along with resources that Movember provides, he’s a member at Wellspring, an incredible cancer resource.
“Wellspring really helped with the chemo process. Having an outlet in a situation like this makes a huge difference. And there are so many people willing to talk and listen. My family was incredibly meaningful at this time, but talking to people who shared similar experiences was a really important part. A part that stuck out was a post-treatment exercise program. I was active and got my body to bounce back after chemo. It was special to me because I was working out with a group of people who had all gone through cancer at some point. We all had that experience and understanding, and being in that group normalized it a bit more.”
Doing chemo doesn’t just break down your body – it can affect your sex drive and your sense of self-perception and masculinity as well. “It’s profound, in a lot of ways. I was hooked up to chemicals for nine weeks, and by the third week, lost my hair. A huge part of who I am is my thick, dark hair, and beard. It’s not just your sex life – it’s a total change in how you perceive yourself from an authentic point of view. I was on steroids and prescription drugs as well, which made me constantly nauseous and made me gain weight. Liters of chemicals were being pumped into me, and I felt constantly bloated. Sex wasn’t really a priority. I lost a testicle through surgery, which is something you adjust to, but for me, losing the beard was a big deal. Looking in the mirror, I didn’t recognize myself. It’s a massive reshuffling of priorities and has a big effect on personal relationships and the way you see yourself.”
Will bounced back once he finished the chemo through working out with his WellSpring family, staying proactive, and establishing a new routine. It was all part of a new chapter. He worked in the advertising industry, under a great company that had a “people first” mentality and allowed him to take an 8-month medical leave. “When I first got the news that things weren’t great, I was about to go to a client meeting. My boss told me to go home and they just totally let me drop work and focus on family. I’m fortunate that Canada has a system in place to help people get through these crises both emotionally and financially”.
When will got the news that he was out of the woods, it was over the phone. He hung up and had an emotional outpouring, after months of tunnel-vision on treatment and pragmatic matters. “after that news, it allowed me to collapse and cried for a good ten minutes. It was a surreal moment to accept that it was real. I was hesitant. I booked a second appointment with my oncologist after my surgeon called me with the news, just to verify. After a bumpy road like that, it’s hard to accept that everything is ok now. It’s hard not to think of statistics”.
For a cancer survivor, no ordeal is ever really a closed chapter for good. As Will puts it, “getting a percentage survival rate is always stressful. I had anxiety and was scared of different things.” So that’s why it’s all about creating a new reality for yourself. He still has a few years of regular checkups ahead of him to make sure that his health is back on track.
But Will’s motivation and proactive energy helped him bounce back with more strength than ever.
“There was a weight off my shoulders that I didn’t know was there.”
Jumping back into normalcy after such a rigorous, draining, and specific routine was one of the toughest parts.
“It’s challenging to get back to a normal line of thinking after you’ve spent months fighting a disease that’s trying to kill you. It was a bit overwhelming. I sought out a counselor at Wellspring to get through the transition, but that will be a long process as well.”
4 months before his diagnosis, Will (a huge hockey fan) was listening to one of his favorite podcasts where hockey commentator Bob Mckenzie of TSN was doing a segment on men’s health, discussing testicular cancer. Months later, when he felt a lump in his testicle, he instantly remembered the podcast episode and knew something wasn’t right. He went to his doctor, got the results, and immediately scheduled an appointment with a specialist the following Friday.
Will wants to encourage people talking about these issues and creating open lines of communication in subjects that guys don’t feel comfortable talking about. “It’s tough to think about if I hadn’t heard that podcast, how long it would have taken me to get myself to the doctor. We need people sharing information, and talking about this. I was lucky with how fast things moved, and now fully see the power of having conversations about men’s health in all aspects. You don’t know who you’ll help when you’re talking about an issue, but doing so is paying it forward. Talking about it and not making it taboo will help you understand if you’re prone to certain things, and get checkups. Creating awareness around this topic and how mental health relates to it – just talking about it is hugely important. It’s a matter of life and death.”
Part 4 of a 5 part series. Click here to learn more about the Movember foundation.