By Mike Renzella
The Haldimand Press
Cancer diagnosis halts plans to represent Canada at the Tokyo Summer Games
CALEDONIA—Michelle Fazzari’s twin sister Stephanie was shocked when she first learned of her sister’s cancer diagnosis on April 16. Although Michelle had been complaining of fatigue and had been seeking advice from several medical professionals since the previous summer, she had just won gold at a wrestling event in Rome in March of this year.
Fazzari, who competed in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, has been a prolific female wrestler in Canada and on the international stage. She finished 17th overall that year and had hopes to place even higher this summer in Tokyo.
“She’s someone who is regularly followed for health … but with COVID she’s not seeing the normal team of doctors she works with…. She kept going to her family doctor, the emergency room, she asked for specialists, some of them are just over the phone,” explained Stephanie, who spoke with The Press on behalf of her sister as Michelle focuses on treatment. “Michelle has wrestled with severe injuries and not complained so if she’s saying she’s not well, she’s not well. So, the Team Canada doctors pushed, ‘listen, give her a second go.’ She had a biopsy before she was supposed to have a surgery that wouldn’t have fixed the problem, and it came back cancerous.”
Fazzari was in Calgary training for the Olympics when diagnosed. That night her parents flew to Calgary and brought her home, where she is currently undergoing radiation and chemotherapy treatments at Juravinski Hospital in Hamilton.
“That was probably the worst phone call I ever had, but it put me in action mode…. I was angry because how does this get missed? We had no idea what stage it was other than it was aggressive,” said Stephanie. “When we found out two weeks later that it was stage 3C-2, I couldn’t believe it.”
Stephanie described how her sister had gone through a series of appointments over several months before being diagnosed and expressed frustration that the cancer was not caught earlier, despite Michelle advocating extensively for her health. According to her, cancer had come up back in September and was ruled out, “but they didn’t rule it out with all the tests they needed. It could have been a simple CT scan that’s done all the time, and they didn’t do it…. I think they saw a 33-year-old fit female heading off to the Olympics and I think sometimes women’s health is overlooked.”
“She went to Rome, and she was tired there. She thought, ‘I think I’m just getting older, it’s taking more out of me’, but she still dominated and got gold. After, she went back to her hotel room and slept, whereas normally she would go out and get her traditional chicken parm meal,” described Stephanie. “She was feeling not well, and she still trained three times a day. It got to the point where she couldn’t. She’d start training on the mats and would leave and go home; she couldn’t make it through a practice. That’s not like her.”
Stephanie recently launched a GoFundMe campaign for Michelle to help cover her living expenses; costly naturopathic support being done in conjunction with treatments prescribed by her oncologist, which includes $800 per week for vitamin therapies; and a costly emergency in vitro fertilization process that Michelle and her partner chose to undertake. The fundraising goal was set at $15,000 but as of Tuesday it had sailed well past $80,000 in donations.
“The GoFundMe has reached a lot of places, not just in our area but abroad in Europe, Australia, and the States,” said Stephanie. “I think it’s a testament to how she’s always been so generous with her time and so caring and giving with others. I was not surprised that we beat our goal so quickly.”
Stephanie describes her sister as kind and generous: “She’s always been a big part of the community and someone who always gives back. It’s not hard to raise money for a really good person. She’s a champion both on and off the mat and she always has been. All I had to do was put the word out and it spread like wildfire. Everyone wanted to help support.”
While her family is sad that Michelle won’t get to compete for a spot at the Tokyo games this year, Stephanie says her sister’s health is their number one priority as a family right now, and her athletic career will have to wait until her sister beats her diagnosis.
“I have no doubt she will beat this. She’s always overcome every obstacle. Even when doctors have told her she can’t wrestle anymore, she’s gone back and dominated. I have no doubt she will overcome this,” said Stephanie.
Michelle’s family plans to stay by her side the whole way, which began with her first chemo treatment: “We stood at the sidewalk and cheered her on her way out.”
“There’s also an anonymous group, created by an anonymous person called ‘I Need A Laugh’ and she has collected over 100 videos from family and friends from around the world,” said Stephanie, noting that Michelle gets about 10 videos a week to keep her company during her six-to-eight-hour long treatment sessions. “That’s our way of making sure she doesn’t feel alone.”
Stephanie concluded by asking people to take inspiration from her sister: “People need to continue advocating for their own health, especially during COVID. If you know something’s wrong, just keep going…. I don’t want to see anyone else go through what Michelle has gone through.”