When unyielding ambition challenges an unrelenting cancer

Despite his grim diagnosis, Navy veteran and MBA student Bryan Fazio refuses to set his goals aside.

Bryan Fazio, a 26-year-old Navy veteran and MBA student, has the same combination of bad luck and fierce determination as my sister.

They both live with the equivalent of a death sentence, having been diagnosed years ago with cancer. And they both keep up the fight, defying statistics, and taking each day as a blessing.

I drove to Irvine on Wednesday to meet with Fazio, who on nine occasions over the last three years has beaten back the advance of Hodgkin's lymphoma, only to have it rage again. Earlier this year, running out of treatment options, one of Fazio's doctors wrote that his "incurable recurrent" disease gave him a life expectancy of "less than nine months."

On my way to meet Fazio, I called my sister, Debbie, to see how she was doing after Cyberknife surgery Monday to zap two relatively small but fast-growing brain tumors. She was tired and a little foggy but reasonably OK.

"It's been seven years," she exclaimed, telling me she was exhausted, relieved and amazed by both her Kaiser doctors and the wonder of medical technology.

Debbie was diagnosed in 2006 with ovarian cancer, which metastasized to her brain 22 months later. At the time of her first brain surgery, her surgeon told us average life expectancy was about 22 months. But three times since then, radio surgery has kept the cancer in check, and she's been remarkably resilient.

"I know what she's going through," said Fazio, who, like my sister, has visited and coached other cancer patients. Fazio realizes he may not win his fight, but he prefers to focus on the fact that those life-expectancy numbers are averages and to believe he can end up on the long end of the curve.

And he doesn't mean that in the abstract. The college grad had just finished basic training in the Navy — "I was in the best shape of my life" — and was about to be deployed in 2010 when chest pains sent him to the doctor. That's when the cancer was spotted, with one tumor so large that his breathing was restricted.

"They said it was very treatable," said Fazio, who insisted on reporting for duty as a radio officer even while undergoing chemotherapy in San Diego.

"I signed a contract to serve my country in the military, and I wanted to serve," said Fazio, whose goal was to become a lawyer in the Navy's Judge Advocate General's Corps.

"He's not the type to just lie on his back," said his mother, Sheryl Silver, who lost her job because of the time she spent being Fazio's caretaker. She's gone to court trying to get her job back, but whatever happens, Silver doesn't regret being there for her son when he was fatigued, when he vomited blood, when he couldn't walk without a cane and needed a ride to yet another medical appointment.

Fazio eventually had no choice but to take a medical leave from the Navy, but even then, he refused to scale back his ambition. He entered the MBA program at Brandman University in Irvine, often attending class while sick from chemotherapy. He worked as a Costco checker, too, and continued to beat the cancer into retreat, only to have it return again and again.

A stem-cell infusion, using his own cells, helped only briefly. That meant more chemo, which didn't work. And one day his doctor "called me in and sat me down," said Fazio.

"You need to get your affairs in order," he recalls the doctor saying. "This thing is spreading quickly and we've given you all the treatment we can."

Almost all, actually. In 2012, doctors discovered that Bryan's younger brother, David, was a DNA match for a stem-cell transplant. Bryan rebounded yet again, but early this year the cancer was back "with a vengeance," as Bryan describes it.

Was it time, finally, to give up? Fazio had a different plan.

"I thought, with all that's going on, how amazing would it be if I graduated and got my master's degree?" he said.

That's when he doubled up on his courses, and although he won't complete his final two classes until next month, Fazio wore the cap and gown and walked with graduates in May. And Brandman recently informed him it will begin offering a scholarship in his name for sick or injured military veterans.

Fazio has several tumors now, and he's undergoing more chemotherapy. He knows he can't control the disease, or will himself to live, but he's committed to controlling his reaction to the cancer. There are times when he wonders why him, but even then, he has perspective, saying the disease has brought him closer to his mother and brother "and to my higher power."

"I know people like your sister are going through a similar thing," Fazio said of the bargaining that goes on for those who try not to despair despite the stubborn persistence of a deadly disease. "There are kids going through it, so I don't get into that pity party for myself. I try to keep moving forward with my goals."

One of which is to become a legal advocate for veterans who need help with jobs, housing or healthcare after completing their service. Fazio told me he's applied to several law schools, and he's hoping for good news.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

 

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