Triumph Over Adversity

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Kevin Iinuma
  • 70th ISRW Public Affairs
In the realm of sports, triumph is often defined by victories, records, and medals. Yet, for those who have confronted the darkest of challenges, triumph takes on a different, profound meaning – a testament to the unwavering human spirit in the face of serious injury or illness.
U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Nicole Favuzza, 70th Operations Support Squadron senior enlisted leader, was diagnosed with Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma (ACC) in 2018, which is a rare and incurable form of cancer. According to a National Organization for Rare Disorders report, July 6, 2023, symptoms of ACC of the salivary glands may include numbness of the lower lip and/or other facial areas; nerve impairment causing weakness of certain facial muscles; ongoing pain; and/or other associated abnormalities.
“When I received the news about my cancer diagnosis, I was initially in a state of disbelief,” said Nicole. “However, I immediately adopted a proactive mindset, fully committed to following the medical recommendations and treatment plans.”
Nicole’s diagnosis occurred simultaneously with the birth of her third and final child. While it was heart wrenching and arguably the most stress her family had endured, Nicole and her husband were faced with raising kids and fighting cancer at the same time.
“There were weak moments, but my role was to be strong for my wife and children,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Frank Favuzza, 70 Intelligence, Surveillance Reconnaissance Wing strategic plans and programs senior enlisted leader. “As Oprah Winfrey said, ‘where there is no struggle, there is no strength.’”
Serious injuries or illnesses have the power to transform a person's life, impacting them physically, psychologically, and socially.
"One of the most significant challenges I faced during my cancer treatment was coming to terms with the physical side effects,” said Nicole. “I found myself battling extreme fatigue and developed painful sores inside my mouth, which made the ordeal even more challenging.”
To help combat these challenges, Nicole became active within the adaptive sports community to include the Air Force Wounded Warrior program.
“It was just three months after finishing radiation treatment, I had lost all my strength and my muscles had atrophied a lot,” said Nicole. “It wasn't pretty, but it was a starting point in participating in the adaptive sports.”
This is where she learned about the Invictus Games Foundation, which emerged as a beacon of hope. She eventually joined Team U.S. and competed during the Invictus Games Düsseldorf 2023, Germany, Sept. 9-16.
“My decision to participate in the Invictus Games was deeply rooted in the role that sports have played in my life as a constant source of solace and therapy,” said Nicole. “Throughout my journey with the Wounded Warrior program, I’ve met a lot of inspiring men and women who have faced tremendous challenges with incredible resilience.
“Their determination and spirit have motivated me to follow in their footsteps, aspiring to represent Team U.S. at the Invictus Games.”
This organization charts a path to recovery for wounded, injured, and sick servicemen and women worldwide. It is a collaborative effort, with a primary mission – to provide opportunities for post-traumatic growth. The foundation believes in empowering individuals to reclaim their sense of purpose, identity, and future, transcending the boundaries of their injuries.
“The Invictus Games provided a platform to demonstrate that I am not defined by my illness,” said Nicole. “It allowed me to overcome false perceptions I have placed on myself on what it means to be a cancer patient,”
Nicole spent several years training for the competition. She received training from top-tier coaches in various disciplines, including Olympian runners, World Champion powerlifters, and Paralympic coaches. Each of them offered meticulously designed programs tailored to prepare athletes for the Invictus Games.
“Training for the games was both challenging and incredibly fulfilling,” said Nicole. “Balancing it with other [military] commitments presented difficulties, but it was a journey marked by personal growth and a strong sense of purpose.
“I'm immensely grateful for the unwavering support of my family, particularly my husband, who made sacrifices to accommodate my training schedule and provided crucial encouragement, especially during the tough days.”
Frank added they are Peloton fanatics who have their treadmill and bike side by side. They frequently incorporated strength and cardio classes from this platform into Nicole’s training routine. While they often workout next to each other, it's rare they do the same workout together.
“The reason we don’t do the same workouts is because Nicole is a speed powerhouse,” said Frank. “It would be a competition between a turtle and a hare!”
While the cancer served as a point of trauma, it also was as a catalyst for what their family is today with exercise being a foundational pillar in the Favuzza household, especially for Nicole.
“I am also driven by the desire to set an example for my children,” said Nicole. “Demonstrating that regardless of the obstacles they encounter, they possess inner strength and resilience capable of conquering any adversity.”
Frank added, “I am proud of Nikki every day for the great Airman, wife and mother that she is. Combining her love for exercise with her unstoppable drive, and it's no surprise that she made it all the way to the U.S. Invictus Games team.”
These athletes engaged in respectful and friendly competition, pushing their limits and finding strength in unity. Within the Invictus community, an international network of individuals who understand and support each other, they discover a profound camaraderie.
“What I cherished the most was the opportunity to connect with the person behind the national jersey, witness my fellow competitors achieve personal milestones, and conquer their fears and doubts,” said Nicole. “To me, it reinforced the idea that we are all on our unique journeys of recovery, each at our own pace.”
Nicole was able to share her experiences, struggles and victories with others along a similar path, fostering new friendships along the way. These athletes were being celebrated for their achievements on the road back to recovery.
“When the Invictus Games came to a close, it was a bittersweet moment,” said Nicole. “After years of preparation, the event concluded in just 10 days. However, I take solace in the enduring bonds of lifelong friendships and the treasure trove of unforgettable memories that will accompany me in the years ahead.”
Nicole showed the world a fraction of her strength, grit, willpower, and pursuit of excellence during the games. Competing in track, field, cycling, swimming, and indoor rowing events, she earned two gold, silver, and bronze medals each.