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Celebrating cancer survivors: Kentville woman battles back from death’s doorstep to become fitness instructor

Birgie Hazel prepares to teach a pound class in New Minas May 2.
Birgie Hazel prepares to teach a pound class in New Minas May 2. - Laura Churchill Duke

KENTVILLE, NS - It’s a miracle that Birgie Hazel is still alive – let alone teaching fitness classes.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would be able to take a Pound class, let alone teach one. I was dying,” the Kentville cancer survivor says.

It all started when Hazel had a root canal done in early 2016. In February 2016, after a second root canal, her mouth began seizing up and her dentist sent her to a periodontist. Hazel told her that something was desperately wrong.

Hazel was sent to an oral clinic at the Victoria General in Halifax, where it was discovered that she had an ulcerated tonsil. They called the ENT department and an intern ran a scope up her nose. She was sent to the emergency department right away. She had an appointment with a surgeon, Mark Taylor, on April 15, 2016, and was told she had stage four tonsil cancer.

After being told that her best option would be an operation, she underwent an intensive procedure a month later, on May 19, where surgeons basically slit her throat to remove the lymph nodes on both sides.

Tissue and tendons had to be removed from Hazel’s arm to rebuild her throat and a skin graft was taken from her leg to repair her arm. It was discovered that the cancer had spread throughout her mouth, forcing doctors to rebuild her upper pallet with plastic.

Part of her tongue that was cancerous also had to be rebuilt. She has no feeling on the right side of her mouth. Her wind pipe had almost sealed shut and she was within hours of death. It was supposed to be a seven- or eight-hour surgery but with all of the complications, the procedure ended up taking about 17 hours. An old whiplash injury aggravated in the process and she ended up being hospitalized for 15 days.

Hazel is extremely grateful to Taylor, his surgical team and the nursing team for saving her life. She doesn’t believe she would be alive today if not for their efforts.

Birgie Hazel of Kentville has a remarkable story. She overcame stage-four tonsil cancer to live out her dream of becoming a certified Pound instructor.
Birgie Hazel of Kentville has a remarkable story. She overcame stage-four tonsil cancer to live out her dream of becoming a certified Pound instructor.

Long road to recovery

“It’s been a hard process to speak again so people can understand me,” says Hazel. “I still can’t open my mouth…at one point I could only put the width of two tongue suppressors in there, that was it.”

Hazel came home for about six weeks after her surgery. She received physiotherapy and was able to open her mouth a bit more. The next step was radiation treatments, 33 in total, which began on July 13, 2016, and ran until Aug. 30 of that year. For three months, beginning on Aug. 24, she depended on a suction machine to clear the thick mucus that resulted. She refused chemo treatments because she knew it would make her vomit and there was nowhere for the vomit to go.

After ringing the bell at the conclusion of her treatments, Hazel said the toughest battle was still to come as she recovered over the next few months. Relationships were affected and she endured hardship in her personal and financial life. Her memory and ability to process emotions and information were affected. Hazel said she had to revamp her thinking and approach to life.

“People don’t realize, it’s like a tsunami hit me, it was like every single area in my life was flattened,” Hazel said. “You look at it and you wonder, where do I start putting the pieces back.”

For nine months, Hazel had to sleep upright in a La-Z-Boy chair. Unable to eat solid food, Hazel depended on a feeding tube for 14 months. She now survives by drinking five bottles of Boost a day, one formula for calories and another for protein.

“We should be grateful for our mindless body functions, eating, swallowing, drinking, breathing…that it’s a rude awakening when things don’t work properly. I’m grateful for friends who have been there for me and for my husband, who endured his own hell through it all.”

Read more of our Surviving Cancer series:

Discovering Pound

Before her surgery, Hazel had realized that she was going to lose her voice and that she needed to surround herself with a community, so she decided to join Facebook. She saw a video online about a form of exercise known as Pound. Even though she was dying at the time, the music, choreography, rhythm and high-intensity cardio workout of Pound called to her. 

Birgie Hazel had to wear a special radiation mask during her radiation treatments.
Birgie Hazel had to wear a special radiation mask during her radiation treatments.

In November 2016, Hazel was in such bad shape that she couldn’t lift her arms without crawling her hands up a wall. In January 2017, Hazel was given the OK to start taking kickboxing classes with Patty Young at Young’s Uechi Ryu Karate and Fitness Dojo in New Minas again. It was something she’d done regularly before the ordeal began, and she was anxious to get back at it. Hazel considers Young to have been instrumental to her recovery and says she owes Young a debt of gratitude.

Hazel began working out with Young three times a week. She also joined the Acadia Fitness Centre, doing core, weights, spin and TRX. Consistency was key, and she slowly began to improve her upper body strength and cardiovascular conditioning.

“I had to work hard to regain my health. It took all of that,” Hazel said.

In November 2017, she decided that despite all the challenges she was facing, she would use money from an income tax return to fly to Edmonton to become a certified Pound instructor.

The certification allowed her to access a website featuring pre-choreographed Pound routines. She initially found it challenging because her upper body wasn’t able to move the way she wanted it to and the radiation had affected her memory. But, in the end, she told herself that she was going to become a Pound instructor, no matter what it took, and she worked at it until she got the routines down.

“Mentally, I knew what I had to do, I just didn’t think I physically could until I told myself, ‘you have no choice. You’re doing it’,” Hazel said.

She has now started teaching one-hour-long Pound classes twice a week, one at the Acadia University Fitness Centre in Wolfville on Mondays at 5 p.m. and one at Young’s Uechi Ryu Karate and Fitness Dojo on Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m.

The ‘new normal’

Hazel said it was a positive mindset and her belief in God that carried her through. She realizes that no one can truly understand what she’s been through because even if they’ve had cancer, everyone’s journey is different and everyone’s body reacts differently. Her experience has given her a great deal of empathy for people suffering from the disease.

“You might have to dig really deep but you can overcome this,” Hazel said. “You can let your circumstances crush you or you can rise above them.”

This was what Birgie Hazel’s arm looked like after tissue and tendons were removed to rebuild her throat.
This was what Birgie Hazel’s arm looked like after tissue and tendons were removed to rebuild her throat.

Hazel, who is now 60, admits there were times when circumstances were mounting against her that she wanted to throw in the towel. However, Hazel decided to be “real.”

She is now embracing her “new normal” and is thinking big. She has learned through the experience how important it is to ignore criticism and avoid negative self-talk. You “have to give yourself the right to be human,” she says.

She realizes that she’ll have to work harder than others but she firmly believes that she can do astounding things. She plans to persevere and achieve her goals and dreams, for her own benefit and for that of the community.

“I’m here for a reason and a purpose,” Hazel said. “I’m very blessed that I am cancer free.”

Despite how traumatic her experience has been, she has “absolutely no regrets” and realizes that she wouldn’t be living her dream of teaching Pound today if it hadn’t been for her battle against cancer.

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