On a Roll
Thomas Cantley trumps testicular cancer with a creative approach.
When Thomas Cantley was 7 years old, doctors testing him for learning disabilities told him he was a dreamer because of his interest in creating and sharing stories. “They said, ‘Thomas, you need to have realistic views; you need to have realistic ideas of what life can be,’” Cantley says.
Luckily, he didn’t listen. Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Cantley spent most of his childhood in California, moving back to Canada during high school. He found his new environment to be less than stimulating, and he turned to acting as an escape. Ultimately, he found his interest lay in filmmaking. “I’ve always kind of wanted to be in front of the camera, ever since I was 16,” he says. “Then it turned out I wanted to be behind the camera.”
Following his passion to Vancouver Film School, Cantley made friends with an “amazing group of people,” he says. After graduating, he moved to New York City to pursue professional filmmaking. He was interested specifically in feature films and drama. “I didn’t ever think I’d be working in philanthropy-documentary-type stuff,” he says.
Cantley threw himself into filmmaking in New York, “trying to get into whatever I could,” he says. He tried to ignore the pain developing in his abdomen and groin — until he couldn’t ignore it anymore. In 2009, the 26-year-old filmmaker was diagnosed with Stage III testicular cancer.
He returned to Canada for treatment, and, surrounded by family during his frightening fight, he came to a realization: The way he had been socialized, to be a “strong” and “independent” man, and to avoid seeking help, was the reason he had let the cancer grow to this point.
When caught early, testicular cancer has a survival rate of close to 99 percent; the Testicular Cancer Society calls it a “diagnosis, not a death sentence.” However, men are less likely to go to the doctor when they think something may be wrong. “If we show a sign of weakness, that’s not ‘manly,’” Cantley says. “I want to break that stigma. You only have one body.”
Cantley underwent surgery to remove his left testicle and infected lymph nodes. “I was scared,” he says. “I was afraid. My way of therapy was to film it all.” He decided to create Ballsy, a brand and community aimed at raising awareness of testicular cancer and other male reproductive cancers. He planned to roll a 6-foot inflatable testicle — nicknamed “Lefty” — across Canada, relying only on the kindness of strangers to help him complete the journey. He would film the whole thing, documentary-style.
He took the story to a New York producer, who asked him what the “hook” was. What made Cantley’s story different from another cancer story? Cantley didn’t know, and he was still recovering emotionally and physically from his ordeal. He put the project on hold, but it remained in his thoughts.
Three years later, Cantley was in talks with a well-known agent about the book he was writing to accompany Ballsy. She called him out on his failure to complete the trek he’d promised to make years before, telling him it showed that he couldn’t follow through. “I said to her, ‘I love you,’” Cantley says. “You’ve given me the energy and the story I’ve been searching for.’”
About three weeks later, he had assembled a film crew, launched an Indiegogo campaign and gotten on his way, rolling Lefty from Toronto to Vancouver. Fans converged on the odd procession, offering help in the form of food, shelter, gas — even a donated car.
“We went more than 2,500 miles, all through the kindness of people,” Cantley says. “It’s not about money. It’s about what you can give in kind.” The media paid attention, too; Cantley has been featured by several well-known news organizations and has no plans to slow his roll.
Cantley, who has been working from New Orleans to re-launch the Ballsy brand, will begin another ball-push this month, heading from Santa Monica, California, back to the Big Apple. Accompanying the survivor — along with his film crew — will be Lefty, Jr. (a new, giant ball co-branded by the Testicular Cancer Foundation) and his faithful dog, Vader. “We’re starting this on Sept. 3, and we’re looking for as much help and support as possible,” Cantley says. “I want to show that this is the physical struggle. I’m being raw, truthful, honest and open. This is what cancer is like. It’s not easy. This project can’t be completed without the help of perfect strangers.” ballpush.org