Michael W. Panzera, 19, honor student, athlete on high school team

August 19, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Michael William Panzera, a University of Maryland freshman and popular Hammond High School scholar-athlete who waged a courageous battle against a brain tumor, died Monday at Children's National Medical Center in Washington. The lifelong Columbia resident was 19.

Mr. Panzera's interest in soccer began when he was 4 years old playing in Howard County recreation clinics. He moved up to club teams with the Soccer Association of Columbia and the Olney Boys & Girls Club.

He was an honor student during his years at Hammond High, where he played striker on the varsity soccer team, was active in student government and mentored special education students.

In October 2002, Mr. Panzera began noticing that his kicking was less than accurate and that he tired easily. By the middle of the next month, he was experiencing double vision and shortly after his 17th birthday, a CT scan at Howard County General Hospital revealed a baseball-size tumor.

He was diagnosed with glioblastoma - an aggressive brain tumor - and was transferred to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he underwent six hours of surgery that removed 90 percent of the tumor, with the remainder in an inoperable area of his brain.

Even though he lost peripheral vision and depth perception in his left eye, Mr. Panzera remained upbeat about the outcome of his surgery.

He was placed on an experimental drug, Iressa, and traveled to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, where he was treated with radiation seven days a week for six weeks.

"You can't let these things slow you down," he said in a 2003 interview with The Sun. "Soccer keeps me up. I'd be way down without it."

"He was very strong and he understood what was happening.," said his mother, Kathleen Panzera, a Social Security Administration information technology specialist. "But I don't think he let it get him down especially.

"And for the first two years after the surgery, he went and did everything everyone else was doing. Nothing slowed him down and I think he was very hopeful."

Her son resumed playing soccer at Hammond High while maintaining a grade point average of 3.5. He joined the Ashley Foundation in Frederick, a support group for teenagers with cancer.

In 2003, through the efforts of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, he flew to Los Angeles, where he visited a television studio and watched a rehearsal of The Simpsons, his favorite show. He met Matt Groening, the show's creator, and its voice actors and animators.

Last fall, Mr. Panzera entered the University of Maryland, College Park, where he was majoring in special education. He had hoped to become a teacher and coach, but in December - as he was finishing his first semester - Mr. Panzera learned that his cancer had returned.

"Michael went on to complete his final exams and made the dean's list," said his father, Ronald K. Panzera, executive director of Linowes & Blocher, a Bethesda law firm. "Over the next several months, he underwent additional surgeries and treatments. Unfortunately, they were unable to control the growth of his aggressive tumor."

When Mr. Panzera was diagnosed with cancer again, his friends got together and ordered gray bracelets - the color symbolic of brain tumors - with "MPIZZLE" on them. It was his nickname from high school.

"They sold about 1,500 of them and sent the proceeds to the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation," his mother said.

During the past eight months, friends rallied around Mr. Panzera and his family, offering help and emotional support. "They were overwhelmed by this, and it wasn't uncommon for 20 or 30 kids to be in my house at one time," Mrs. Panzera said.

"Mike was such an inspiration to us, and he continued to keep a positive outlook on life," said Kevin R. Chesley, a childhood friend and UM student. "He never wanted you to feel sorry for him. He wanted you to go out and have a good time. He wanted no mourning."

"He's probably the most courageous person that I've ever known," Mr. Panzera's father said. "Obviously, he fought to the end. He loved life."

Services will be held at 1 p.m. tomorrow at Christ Episcopal Church, 6800 Oakland Mills Road, Columbia, where Mr. Panzera was a communicant.

Also surviving are a brother, Stephen R. Panzera of Hagerstown; a sister, Adriane M. Panzera of Chevy Chase; his paternal grandmother, Olive Panzera of Sterling, Va.; and his maternal grandmother, Shirley Potter of Washington.

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