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Celebrating survival: Hazel named community champion for 2019 Kentville Relay for Life

Cancer survivor, certified Pound instructor to lead class at event


She’s a cancer survivor on a journey to realizing her “authentic self” and she wants to help others along the way.

Birgie Hazel of Kentville is the Community Champion for the 2019 Kentville Relay for Life. The Canadian Cancer Society fundraiser takes place at Kentville Memorial Park on June 8 from 6 p.m. to 12 a.m.

“Coming together for this great cause symbolizes hope and strength when there is unity and purpose,” Hazel said.

While some things have stabilized for her, the 61-year-old said others are still unfolding. Hazel is concentrating on rebuilding the essence of who she is, restoring her “true self” to help enrich the lives of others.

Sorting through the “rubble piles” of her life and going through home renovations, it occurred to Hazel that “things have to fall apart before they can fall together.”

She is thankful to the Relay for Life organizing committee for offering her the Community Champion position. Her heart is “overwhelmed with gratitude” and she feels “humbled and deeply honoured.” Hazel said it feels surreal and it all came about in a rather unusual way.

A Zumba instructor who had participated in the event for several years couldn’t make it. Someone suggested Pound to one of the organizers, who contacted Hazel, a certified Pound instructor. Hazel quickly accepted the offer for a half-hour time slot.

She told the organizers she is a cancer survivor and sent them a link to an article about her ordeal. She was also offered – and accepted - the position as Community Champion for this year’s event.

Hazel said she is finally at a place where her energy level is more balanced. She has a better understanding of her “new normal” and the steps she must take to function. She can no longer eat solid food and lives on six bottles of chocolate Boost a day.

Hazel said she has been down a very rough road but the experience has given her a wealth of knowledge to share with others, including how to function in spite of dysfunction and not allowing circumstances to define you. She said crisis can be a blessing if you embrace the right mindset and God’s strength to power through the barrage of obstacles.

Hazel has participated in Relay for Life in the past and said her favourite part is the Luminary Ceremony. The ceremony celebrates those battling cancer, survivors and people who lost their lives to cancer.

She said the ceremony shows the extent of cancer’s impact. The light symbolizes hope in a dark place – a celebration of perseverance and survival in spite of the odds stacked against those battling the disease.

The ceremony can be a very cleansing moment, a time of support, strength, encouragement and a time to reflect emotionally on suffering and the pain of loss.

She is thankful to everyone in the community who contributes to Relay for Life, including the many volunteers and participants. The support for those in crisis makes a huge difference.

She said life is fragile and although we all seem to think we have lots of time, it is elusive, and cancer is not age specific. Hazel urges others not to take their “mindless body functions” for granted.

Hazel likens her cancer experience to a tsunami where “everything that everyone holds as normal” was under attack. She was at a place of total peace in life when she was diagnosed with cancer and said the past three years have taken her “to the utmost breaking points in my human capacity to endure.”

In February 2016, Hazel’s jaw started seizing up. At first, she thought it was a root canal gone awry but antibiotics didn’t help. After attending an oral clinic that April, she was sent for an emergency CT scan and discovered that she had stage-four tonsil cancer.

She recently celebrated the third anniversary of her surgery, which took place on May 19, 2016. Hazel said the person she used to be died on the operating table.

What was supposed to be a seven or eight-hour operation ended up taking almost 17 hours. Her jaw was split from her bottom lip down, a metal plate was put in, her throat was slit and lymph nodes were removed as part of the operation.

Tissue and tendons were removed from her left forearm and used to rebuild Hazel’s upper palate, tongue and throat. A skin graft was taken from her leg to patch her arm.

Hazel is grateful to surgeon Dr. S. Mark Taylor and his staff for performing the complicated procedure. She said doctors from all over the world train under Taylor. An intern from Africa told her that, in his country, Hazel would have been told that they couldn’t help her and that she should prepare to die.

“I’m a miracle,” Hazel said.

She is also grateful to resident intern ENT Faisal Alzahrani, who sent her for the CT scan that led to her diagnosis; the ENT Clinic at the Dickson Centre, radiologist Dr. Murali Rajaraman, the radiation technicians and nursing staff.

Hazel extends thanks to Patty Young of Young’s Uechi Ryu Karate and Fitness Dojo in New Minas for holding a benefit for her; to speech therapist Susan Murphy and to Pastor Bruce Patstone for driving her to appointments and for his support during some “very dark days.”

Hazel appreciates the support she received from The Lodge That Gives, giving her a place to stay for five weeks while undergoing treatments and supplying the food supplement she needed while she was on a feeding tube.

They also fed her various roommates, personal friends who were there in support. Having a roommate was necessary because of the feeding tube. The lodge also provided gas vouchers for Hazel while the facility was closed for renovations.

“Any kindness that was shown me through this cancer journey is deeply appreciated, whether through family, friends, community, professionals, church – whoever was there for me, thank you with all my heart,” Hazel said.

She depended on the feeding tube for 14 months and had to sleep sitting in a chair for nine months. Hazel endured 33 radiation treatments. She said this caused issues that didn’t exist prior and she has experienced difficulty swallowing and breathing. Her memory has been affected and she experiences delayed processing of information and emotions.

Hazel experienced more trismus or lockjaw last year. Her food was coming through her nose and a swallowing test showed that her epiglottis is damaged, staying open on an angle.

Hazel said she should have aspiration pneumonia but doesn’t – for which she credits her extreme fitness regimen and belief in God.

Without her daily commitment to physical fitness, Hazel said she would be dead. In the run of a week, she takes a weight class, two spin classes, a core class, two kickboxing classes, does TRX and practices Pound at home. She also teaches Pound twice a week, at the Acadia University Fitness Centre in Wolfville and at Young’s.

Aside from being a “fitness nut”, Hazel is also an artist and self-described musical “percussion diva.” She has been taking part in weekly jam sessions at Westside Charlies with the Barkhouse Trio on Thursdays and at The Noodle Guy in Port Williams on Saturdays, led by Guy Breau.

“You are alive to make a difference,” Hazel said. “Define who you really are and be that.”


For more information on the Kentville Relay for Life, to sign up or to donate, visit the event’s Facebook page or the Canadian Cancer Society website.


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