Michelle Fazzari was fighting for gold at a wrestling event in Rome when she began to notice something felt wrong.
The Canadian Olympian took home the medal, but her body wasn’t bouncing back the way it usually does and she was tired, says her twin sister, Stephanie.
Concerned, Fazzari’s family encouraged her to keep seeking tests and pushing for answers from doctors.
“As someone who’s wrestled with huge injuries in the past, and still goes on the mat and conquers it, for her to complain about this, we knew something was wrong,” said Stephanie.
“But did we ever in a million years think cancer? No, we did not think cancer.”
A doctor found the cancer during a biopsy for one of her sister’s surgeries, said Stephanie. The 33-year-old was diagnosed on April 16 and that night, her parents flew to Calgary where she was training.
She’s now undergoing chemotherapy and radiation at the Juravinski Cancer Centre in Hamilton, says Stephanie.
The family has not disclosed exactly what type of cancer Michelle is struggling with, saying she’s not ready to share that detail as she adjusts to all of the changes in her life.
“It has spread quite far,” said Stephanie, confirming the information she shared in a GoFundMe campaign launched on her sister’s behalf. The site says the disease is “stage 3C and has spread to her lymph nodes.”
The fundraising campaign is aimed at gathering donations to cover living costs, vitamins and an emergency fertility journey. It’s seen a huge response, quickly blowing past its initial $15,000 goal and hitting more than $71,000 as of Friday morning.
‘You don’t even need to ask and she’s there’
Stephanie credits that generosity to the character of the sister she teasingly nicknamed Mother Teresa.
The twin says her sister, who lives in the Beamsville, Ont., area, is kind, caring, and goes out of her way to volunteer her time and share her skills.
“She’s always connected with people. She’s always gone above and beyond for others, expecting nothing in return,” said Stephanie. “You don’t even need to ask and she’s there.”
Marty Calder, Fazzari’s coach with the Brock Wrestling Club, said Michelle is a “fighter,” adding she’s “like family” and that he wanted her to know she has all kinds of support.
The executive director of Wrestling Canada Lutte, the national governing body for Olympic-style wrestling, also praised the athlete’s personality, describing her as someone who “always has a smile on her face” and doesn’t hesitate to tell it like it is.
“She’s been a champion both on and off the mat [and] has been a mentor to other athletes,” said Tamara Medwidsky.
Had her eye on Tokyo
The director said Wrestling Canada Lutte wants to support Fazzari, noting the diagnosis comes at an especially difficult time for her as a competitor who’s been on the national team for years.
“This was part of her road to recovery and her road towards Tokyo,” said Medwidsky.
“My heart goes out to her because I know that she’s been a longstanding team member. She’s pivoted so many times and come out on top through so many scenarios … and this is just a situation at the worst possible time of her athletic career.”
Medwidsky said posts on social media wishing Fazzari the best point to how much she’s loved and supported.
“It’s a tragic situation and we’re all just rooting for her and hoping for the best for her and her family.”
Stephanie said her sister was in incredible shape, working out three times a day while training for a spot in the upcoming Olympics in Tokyo following her 17th-place finish at the 2016 games in Rio.
Diagnosis a ‘huge blow’ for athlete
Her health problems went back as far as June of last year, but Stephanie says repeated conversations with doctors —over the phone rather than in person due to COVID-19 — didn’t provide clarity about what was going on.
It’s a situation that’s frustrated the family, and Stephanie says it’s left her wondering if her sister’s appearance as a healthy athlete, combined with complications to care caused by the pandemic, played a role in how late she was diagnosed.
“I have no idea how this was missed. She went for every checkup she could.”
Stephanie said learning her sister was sick has been a “huge blow,” but the family is staying positive.
“Michelle’s always been the strong one. I have no doubt in my mind that she will power through this. It’s not the first obstacle she’s had in life.”