As a former football player, John Hardy knows all about fighting your way back after a tough loss.
“I went to school at California Berkeley on a football scholarship, spent a few years in the NFL and then the Canadian league,” Hardy said.
“I was lucky enough to have won a couple of championships in my life. So reaching the top, you know, it builds a mentality that there's nothing you can't achieve. So I sort of have that mindset when it comes to any obstacle in my way.”
This philosophy on life would serve Hardy well when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer
at the age of 46. He had been working as a football coach for 14 years when he started to experience some digestive and urinary issues. An athlete all his life, Hardy knew how his body should feel. He knew how good health, for him, should feel, and he knew something was wrong. So, he went to the doctor.
“I ended up going to the doctor in 2013 and they checked my prostate, did a full physical, all my bloodwork and everything. Everything came back negative. They told me everything was fine,” Hardy recalled.
While the tests may have come back clear, Hardy still sensed that something was off — no matter what the results indicated.
“I was still having issues and problems, so I went back and I started doing a lot of reading on some of my symptoms and they kept pointing to my prostate. But I thought, since I just had that checked, it wasn’t that,” Hardy explained.
“Come to find out, when I went back in 2014 for another physical, they found a lump.”
After this discovery, Hardy was first referred to a urologist 30 miles from his home for treatment, so he asked his primary care physician if there was a more convenient location for him to go to. His doctor suggested City of Hope.
I knew that City of Hope was the best facility you could go to,” Hardy said. “So they ended up sending me to Dr. Pearson in Pasadena."
It was under the care of Philip G. Pearson, M.D.
that Hardy learned some surprising news — those blood tests he took back in 2013, the ones that came back clear, were actually missing one very important component: a PSA test.
A PSA test is a blood test that can help identify the presence of prostate cancer. The prostate produces a protein called prostate-specific antigen (PSA), and the PSA test measures how much of this protein is circulating in the bloodstream. Healthy men usually have PSA levels under four.
“Dr. Pearson went through all of my test results with me and he showed where it said PSA failed test, meaning I didn't take it,” Hardy recounted.
“So he sent me to take it and then the next day he called me in the office. My PSA was at 18, so they said they needed to do a biopsy immediately. So, in November 2014, they did a biopsy and found my prostate cancer.”
Discovering that you have cancer is hard under any circumstance, but the fact that Hardy’s disease went undetected, even when he knew something was wrong and continued to seek help, made this news all the more heartbreaking.
“I went through a lot of emotions. I wondered about malpractice. I was so upset because I always knew something was wrong with me when I went to the doctor the first time,” Hardy lamented.
“And the fact that when they checked me there were no lumps there, nothing abnormal there, that means I could've kept it localized because by the time they found it, it had already had spread to my ribs.”
Since the cancer had spread, Hardy’s doctors had to move fast and get him on a treatment protocol. He began hormone therapy, which he underwent for two years, followed by radiation therapy to treat spots where the cancer had spread. These treatments were effective, but because Hardy was still young and in good health, he and his care team decided that he should have his prostate removed.
Playing through the pain
“Jonathan Lim Yamzon, M.D.,
did my surgery in September 2016. He took my prostate out. He took 11 samples of my bladder, lymph nodes, all that. My PSA score dropped after the surgery and pretty soon, they took me off of any medication. So I haven't been on any medication since 2016,” Hardy detailed.
While the surgery was a success overall, Hardy did experience some life-changing side effects, including digestion issues and erectile dysfunction. For those who have their prostate removed, the resulting change in their sex life presents a whole new set of mental, emotional and physical challenges. This can be discouraging, but at City of Hope, erectile dysfunction is addressed as seriously as a cancer diagnosis.
“The great thing about City of Hope is, as hard as they treated me for cancer, they treated me just as hard for erectile dysfunction
. They are just as concerned about that,” Hardy said.
I was only 46 when I was diagnosed, so they were like, you're way too young for that part of your life to be over. And I've been doing fine. The treatments they have me on and things they have been assisting me with have been fabulous.”
Despite his promising prognosis, Hardy still struggles with the emotional aspects of his cancer journey.
“I try keep an even keel because unfortunately, it's like I'm happy about it, but then it's like, in the back of your mind, you just wait for it to come back. I feel like the treatment was being effective and I was fine. Now that I'm not on anything, a lot of times my mental status is not as well. I'm just waiting for it to come back because I'm not on anything. And maybe the treatments were what was keeping it away, not just me being healed now,” Hardy explained.
“Just like football games, there are ups and downs. And so I go back and forth with that mindset. But I try to stay more positive more often than negative. But it does go both ways sometimes, you know. I mean, I watched my entire dad's side of the family die of cancer, so it's an ongoing thing for me. For years — I'm talking about from the '90s all the way through now — I've watched all my loved ones on that side die of that disease, so it's so hard to deal with it.”
Hardy’s experience with prostate cancer, and watching so many men in his family lose the battle that he has thankfully won, has no doubt been tremendously painful and taxing on his body and mind, but this experience has also had a lasting positive impact on his life.
Honestly, it's helped me put a lot more perspective on my life. I've become a lot more appreciative of things. So it's hasn't all been negative. I have actually gotten closer to my family and friends again and, you know, it helped me sort of make my circle smaller. It took negative people out of my life,” Hardy said.
There has been another silver lining — Hardy is now committed to giving back to his community and wants to set a good example for his 25-, 13- and 12-year-old sons. He wants to share his experiences with men, particularly African-American men
, and encourage them to pay close attention to their health. Prostate cancer occurs most frequently in African-American men, and when compared to white men, African-American men are two times more likely to die from the disease. To combat these concerning statistics, Hardy is a strong advocate for going to the doctor regularly, having prostate cancer screenings and, most important, trusting your gut.
“Just dealing with the diagnosis alone was stressful enough, so I just didn't want to deal with the fact that they missed my PSA test the first time I had an exam, when I knew something was off. I just wanted to concentrate on my health and fight the disease. But it stays on my mind to this day still. I think I could've been in a much better position to fight this disease if I would've known a year earlier,” Hardy explained.
“I think that's a really important point and something I've heard from other patients, too. A lot of times I hear the same story, that someone knew something was wrong. They weren't feeling like themselves. So you really have to advocate for yourself.”
For those facing the same fate as he did, Hardy has this advice:
The diagnosis is what it is. You can only do your part. Eat a healthy diet, set goals for yourself and put a plan of action in place. Stay positive and stay around positive people. Avoid stress and negativity. Stop worrying about what you can’t control. You just got to do your part. Everything else will take care of itself.”
Hardy’s story shows that cancer does not have to be the end of the world. You should never count yourself out because not every cancer battle is a losing one. Regaining good health is possible, and even in the face of a devastating, life-altering experience like cancer, your spirit can remain undefeated.