Karmanos’ first prostate cancer patient in Maumee gives to staff as a token of his appreciation

“I told him to have all his patients sign the bat after completing radiation to show hope from one survivor to the next.”

Patient-centered care plays an essential role in anyone’s cancer journey. Individuals travel from all over the country to receive the specialized care offered at Karmanos Cancer Institute. One 66-year-old Whitehouse, Ohio resident lives miles from the newest state-of-the-art cancer care campus that provides outstanding patient-centered care and delivers new life-changing cancer therapies and treatments.

Bill Happel drove by the construction site of Karmanos Cancer Institute at The Toledo Clinic Cancer Center in Maumee almost every day on his way to work as a high school graphic arts teacher at Saint John’s Jesuit High School. At the time, he didn’t know he would become a patient, but, within weeks of his retirement, Happel was diagnosed with prostate cancer without any signs or symptoms.

When the doctor steps up and says, ‘You have cancer,’ your world stops,” said Happel.

Second to skin cancer, prostate cancer is the most common cancer in American men, affecting roughly one-in-eight during their lifetime. Just behind lung cancer, prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in American men. This disease is most curable in its early stages, so routine checkups to monitor prostate health is important.

Two screening tests help specialists detect prostate cancer early: the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test and the digital rectal exam (DRE). PSA is a particular substance found in the blood produced by the prostate gland. Elevated PSA levels can be a sign of an issue, but it may not always mean prostate cancer. With the DRE, physicians check for suspicious lumps or changes in the prostate. With either of the two tests, a prostate biopsy is needed to confirm the presence of cancer.

After noticing an abnormally high PSA on his routine blood work, Happel’s urologist monitored his levels for another year. In March 2022, his PSA results continued to show an increase, so Happel agreed to a complete prostatectomy (removal of the prostate gland), which was done that same month. During a visit with his urologist in April, Happel learned the biopsy done shortly after his surgery revealed even higher indications of cancer. His urologist recommended radiation therapy for his next course of treatment.

“When I received the news from my urologist that the surgery wasn’t successful, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere else but Karmanos Cancer Institute,” Happel said. “I heard of Karmanos’ reputation as always being a well-organized cancer center with excellent staff that deeply cares for patients.”

His urologist immediately recommended Faheem Ahmad, M.D., radiation oncologist at Karmanos. In the same week, Happel met with Dr. Ahmad. In May 2022, he began his first of 37 rounds of radiation. Every morning at 8 a.m., Happel was warmly greeted by name by every staff member, starting with Mallory at the front desk.

Happel recalled, “Radiation was a very quick and painless procedure where I was in and out in 25 minutes. Dr. Ahmad and his crew did a tremendous job and truly, my life depended on their efforts.”

“Most radiation oncology centers use photon radiation to treat cancer produced in linear accelerators. Utilizing IMRT [intensity-modulated radiation therapy] techniques and cone beam imaging allows us to treat patients safely, accurately and with excellent long-term outcomes,” said Dr. Ahmad.

Being a patient at Karmanos also gives you access to the latest radiation technology and delivery techniques, including IMRT. IMRT is a high-precision radiotherapy technique offered at Karmanos that utilizes sophisticated computer programs to safely deliver high doses of radiation to the tumor or regions within the tumor, while minimizing the amount of radiation delivered to surrounding organs.

Every Friday, Happel would surprise the staff with doughnuts to encourage them, just as they had faithfully inspired him since day one of his radiation treatments.

“The staff was doing so much for me; I wanted to do something for them,” Happel said.

July 13, 2022, was the day Happel and his wife of 32 years had long-anticipated; it was the day that marked his final radiation treatment. After a small ceremony with his supportive team at Karmanos, Happel proudly, with tear-filled eyes, said, “I rang the bell three times and then felt the air go out; I had been holding my breath for the last two years.”

Less than two weeks later, Happel was invited to the second annual Prostate Cancer Awareness Night on July 25, 2022. Decorated with a blue theme to build awareness for prostate cancer, Comerica Park welcomed hundreds of survivors. That night, he received a blue Detroit Tigers bat symbolizing courage in the face of the battle with prostate cancer. At that time, however, Happel was still unaware of whether the radiation treatments were successful.

Three months after completing his final radiation, Happel met with his urologist. This was the most important test result of his life, and he was aiming for a PSA of zero.

“When the doctor cupped his hand in the shape of a zero was the real moment; I was cancer-free,” Happel described.

After hearing the best news of his life, Happel returned to Karmanos - not for treatment or a follow-up - but he came to give the blue bat he received at the Prostate Cancer Awareness Night to his hero, Dr. Ahmad.

Happel explained, “I told him to have all his patients sign the bat after completing radiation to show hope from one survivor to the next.”

“It was an emotional experience for everyone and such a kind gesture by Bill,” reflected Dr. Ahmad. “He has been a wonderful ambassador for prostate cancer patients and Karmanos. His story is inspirational to our patients. The bat will become a permanent part of our center.”

The first prostate cancer patient at the new Karmanos Cancer Institute in Maumee, Ohio, has a renewed sense of purpose in life and his relationships. After marrying off his son, Happel and his wife plan to take the trip of a lifetime to Ireland to uncover his family history. Before then, Happel plans to return to Karmanos for a visit, where he will be reunited with “the best support system - Dr. Ahmad and his crew at Karmanos Cancer Institute.”

“Our staff goes above and beyond for our cancer patients. We treat them with respect, we answer their questions and concerns, and they become a part of the Karmanos family,” described Dr. Ahmad. “I try to thoroughly explain the meaning of a patient's diagnosis, treatment options and radiation treatment process. I also tell them they are in charge of their bodies and decision-making. My job is to guide them along with the cancer care team through this journey.”

And the signs of successful treatment kept coming for Happel. He found out after a recent visit with Dr. Ahmad in January 2023 his PSA level still reads zero.

Men nearing age 50 (45 for African Americans) or who have an immediate family member diagnosed with prostate cancer before age 65 should speak with their primary care provider about their risk of developing prostate cancer and if a PSA blood test or DRE is best for them. Learn more about prostate cancer screening and prevention here.

The Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, headquartered in Detroit, is one of only 53 National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer centers in the country. As an extension of Karmanos, patients in northwest Ohio can receive the same care and treatment options offered at the cancer center in Detroit. Patients and caregivers may call 1-800-KARMANOS for more information and to schedule a consultation.