A Survivor’s Tale

Hap Hazelwood on Early Detection and Unwavering Faith in the Face of Prostate Cancer

photos by JESS McDONALD

In a world where health often comes into focus only after it starts to fade, stories like that of Hap Hazelwood are worth paying attention to. 

Hazelwood, along with his wife, Chris, have both navigated the harrowing waters of cancer — and they’ve not only lived to tell the tale, but have come out of the experience infinitely stronger.

Hap Hazelwood was diagnosed with prostate cancer at 44, an age when many men would likely not consider the disease a threat. The year was 1996, and he was equal parts overwhelmed and surprised, as he was the first in his family to get cancer. 

“I was the first to enjoy this disease,” he laughs, his amiable personality shining through with every word he speaks. It’s clear that Hap isn’t bothered by much, and he doesn’t take himself too seriously. 

But when it comes to cancer, the 72-year-old is brutally honest. 

“I was devastated,” he says. “We call it the ‘big C.’ It was very scary at 44.” But, as he said, “You deal with it.”

Hazelwood’s strong Christian faith got him through those early days, with strong support from his children and parents holding him together as he navigated those blurry early decisions. 

Today, prostate cancer is a significant topic of ongoing research, with more than $1.26 billion invested into prostate cancer research between 2016 and 2020 alone (a whopping 5% of all cancer research funds worldwide). But in 1996, there was still a lot of disagreement over which treatments might be most effective – or treatment “philosophies,” as Hazelwood calls them.

He got second, third, and fourth opinions, finally deciding to travel to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore to have it removed. He wanted to make sure he had the best chance of survival, and that’s exactly what surgery offered. “Fortunately, they got it all, and I’ve had no side effects. I didn’t have to go through chemo or radiation.”

Now, 28 years later, Hazelwood is pleased to say that his cancer has never come back. “There are now so many advancements and treatment options,” he says. According to Johns Hopkins, the five-year survival rate for prostate cancer is now nearly 100%, while the 10-year survival rate is 98%. 

Despite his triumph over cancer, Hap recognizes his good fortune in beating the odds, paying close attention to what he’s eating, how often he’s exercising, and managing other health issues. “We’re grateful for each new day we’re given,” Hazelwood says. “We try to make a difference in somebody’s life every day if we can.”

And is he ever making a difference!

He and his wife are actively involved in the community. Both retired (Hap retired as the chief financial officer at Six/Ten in 2018) and both cancer survivors (Chris has been through several rounds of breast cancer), they work hard to give back to the community. He has been active with the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce for nearly a decade and is currently a member of the finance committee. 

Earlier this year, the Hazelwoods received the 18 Aces to Conquer Cancer 2024 Courage Award.

Ten years ago, the couple started Your Polk County Hub with the goal of helping others dealing with cancer. 

Your Polk County Hub provides community support in a number of ways, but one of the things Hap is most proud of is the Hug in a Box initiative, which provides those going through cancer treatments with materials they might not even know they need, like wristbands for nausea and notebooks (which Hap says are important for taking notes and writing down questions to take to doctors’ appointments).

Aside from the Polk County Hub, Hap and Chris are both active in the Relay for Life. 

“God has given each of us certain gifts to use to help serve others,” Hap Hazelwood reflects. “When you get that diagnosis of the ‘big C,’ it really kicks your can. We want to be able to be here to help people through that journey as best as we can, or at least let them know we are a resource if they want to talk.”

As a devout Christian, Hazelwood strongly believes that God is always in charge, but he doesn’t put his good fortune in beating cancer down to faith (or luck) alone. Instead, he emphasizes the importance of self-advocacy.

“You need to get diagnosed early,” Hazelwood emphasizes. “Each of us is responsible for his own health. You might go to one doctor who says you’re too young [to be worried about prostate cancer]…you have to take responsibility.”

Hap is a strong proponent of PSA screening, which is what caught his own cancer very early on. He was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at age 34 and was on several medications at the time. Because of this, he had a blood test every six months to see how well the treatments were working. 

At the time, his rheumatologist told him that the PSA test wasn’t necessary and wouldn’t be covered by insurance. He persisted. 

And it’s a good thing he did. Despite having no symptoms, his PSA count came back elevated in January of 1996, and a biopsy then found his cancer.

“I feel blessed that my research and persistence was there,” Hazelwood says now. Without the screening, it’s not clear how long the cancer would have gone undiscovered or how bad it would have become. 

Hazelwood’s message is clear: Take charge of your health, work closely with your medical providers, and — most importantly — don’t underestimate the value of early screening.

Today, Hazelwood and his wife continue their mission to impact lives, cherishing each day and the opportunity to assist others. Humble to the core, Hap is nonetheless proud of the work he’s done in his community, including Relay for Life and Meals on Wheels, among others.

His story, full of hope and resilience, continues to inspire and support others facing similar battles – perhaps in more ways than he will ever even know.

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