UB student overcomes skull tumor, wins body building competition


Joey Santa Lucia received an urgent phone call during school saying he needed immediate brain surgery. He had a panic attack and thought he was going to die. He didn’t think he would be able to smile, speak or work out again.

He found out he had a tumor in his skull. He was afraid and helpless. He got used to vomiting every day and always had a shortness of breath.

He never thought he would get his endurance back.

Then one day, he did.

Santa Lucia, a sophomore business marketing major, used his recovery to change his lifestyle. He competed in a Natural Muscle Association bodybuilding competition on Oct. 28 and won three trophies. He’s now moving forward in co-owning a videography company with David Santa Lucia, his brother and UB alumni exercise science major.

Fighting for a healthier body and mind changed his life.

The diagnosis

When Santa Lucia was 16-years-old, he was diagnosed with a skull based tumor on his cranial nerve number 10, a “major” nerve that controls swallowing, breathing and voice.

At the time he was a senior at Canisius High School and was told he had asthma, but his inhaler never helped.

It was quite the scare for Santa Lucia who was a high school wrestler.

Surgeons thought an abscess was going to burst. They thought they would have to cut the nerve, which would mean he would have to eat out of a G-tube for the rest of his life and breath through a trache.

“All the surgeons pretty much scared the sh*t out of me,” Santa Lucia said.

Santa Lucia lost at least 20 pounds from stress, was on a liquid diet for six months and had a droopy smile. His anxiety worsened as his fitness goals plummeted.

Once he got a cat scan, the surgeons realized they had to cut through his neck to get into his skull base to get the tumor out.

Santa Lucia said there was no known cause.

Recovering and rebuilding

The surgeons told Santa Lucia the tumor was most likely growing inside of him for years.

“The fact that I was into physical fitness allowed me to figure out that I had a tumor,” Santa Lucia said. “If I wasn’t involved, there’s a chance I wouldn’t have gotten the symptoms and I wouldn’t have gotten a cat scan, so that’s how fitness changed my life.”

After the surgery, Santa Lucia went to multiple therapists for help his speech and droopy smile.

“I had the mindset to just keep going. I really had to come to a stage of acceptance where I had to acknowledge that certain things in life happen to certain people,” Santa Lucia said. “It’s for a reason but there’s really no one to blame for it. It taught me to appreciate things and not take things for granted and to always be grateful.”

Santa Lucia still experiences a constant numbing sensation on the left side of his face, but over the course of six months, his nerves regained strength and “reverted back to normal.”

“I’m grateful for that though because it could have been a lot worse,” Santa Lucia said. “It was a learning experience that no one else can understand unless you have had a serious health issue.”

Santa Lucia couldn’t complete 50 hours of required community service in high school because of the surgery.

But he was motivated to be his best and become physically fit again.

“I wanted to come out stronger than ever and prove to myself that I can get through anything and that’s when my transition to my fitness phase happened,” Santa Lucia said.

Santa Lucia’s brother David, who is a body builder, motivated him to get back into the gym.

He now feels he can sympathize with anyone.

“Someone could be going through something that you would have no idea. It’s all around us,” Santa Lucia said. “I know a girl who has Lupus, she’s a super nice and mature person. The people that go through those kinds of experiences are the realest kind of people. They are the most genuine. They are the ones that are truly there for you so I feel like [this experience] made me into that kind of person.”

The wingman

David, who is also a fitness model, won first place in the Mr. Rochester bodybuilding championship in 2014.

David has trained Santa Lucia inside and outside the gym. David provided Santa Lucia with meal plans and his workout routine. During competitions, David oiled Santa Lucia’s body and buttoned his competitor number onto his shorts. Even in Spectrum interviews, his brother was behind the camera filming and verbally guiding Santa Lucia.

“He really inspired me to be a better person as far as physical fitness wise. He inspired me to push myself to limitations where I wouldn’t be able to do alone,” Santa Lucia said. “It was a combination of seeing what he was doing, modeling and fitness and all the great things he was doing and I wanted to hop on board immediately.”

When it was time for Santa Lucia’s competition, David was on stage with his camera, “jumping up and down rejoicing,” Santa Lucia said.

David and his brother were workout partners. They inspired each other. When one was too tired, the other would pick him up.

Exceeding expectations

Santa Lucia was motivated to move beyond the gym and compete. His brother’s first place title inspired him to live a healthy lifestyle. Santa Lucia competed in three divisions of the Natural Muscle Association Men’s Physique “Olympus” Competition on Oct. 15 while most people only compete in one.

Going into this competition, his fitness level was exactly where he wanted it to be.

“Honestly if I go into something or if I prepare myself for something, I make sure that I go all out. If someone tells me to do something, I always make sure I do it to a whole other level,” Santa Lucia said. “I’m that kind of person. I’m a huge risk taker.”

He ate chicken and rice every day five to six times a day and trained five days a week. Dieting was most essential and time consuming for Santa Lucia.

“That’s the thing many students don’t really understand,” Santa Lucia said. “They think they can go to the gym and toss around all these weights and think they are going to have optimal muscle growth, but that’s not going to be the case if they are not dieting correctly.”

On Mondays, he worked his chest and triceps, Tuesdays was his leg day, Wednesdays he worked his back and biceps, Thursdays, his shoulders and Fridays were his “all arm day.” He took the weekends to recover and prepare for the next week.

He describes himself as “over prepared,” but he knew there could be men who were more physically fit.

“I believed in my mind I could go in there and take first place and that’s exactly what I did,” Santa Lucia said. “I set my own goals in my own mind and didn’t pay attention to what anyone else was doing.”

Santa Lucia took first place in Teen’s Physique, took second place twice in Men’s Open Short and Men’s First Time.

The competition involved a series of poses he had to endure for “long periods of time” and it also involved “water and carb depleting.” Santa Lucia said he felt super dehydrated when he took the stage but had to maintain a confident, friendly look.

He said the way he carried himself set him apart from other competitors.

“I’m not about arrogance. I’m not about self-absorption. I’m probably the most humble guy you will ever meet. I would say that’s a huge quality that sets me apart from them, Santa Lucia said. “I have had people come up to me and ask “how are you so humble?”

Wrestling in high school, playing football and softball gave him the “endurance” to compete in the competition.

Santa Lucia wasn’t nervous because he went in “very confident, not overly confident but confident enough.”

David said he might compete with his brother one day since they are the same height.

“Whether he wins or I wins, we would be equally proud because we’re a team,” Santa Lucia said.

Relationships and personal setbacks

Santa Lucia and David found many people trying to deter them. In the beginning, Santa Lucia found his socialization and family life struggling as a result of his training, competing and staying focused.

David said they’ve spent a long time with people not believing in them. They told them they’re wasting time and should be doctors instead.

He lost his family’s support and his friends vanished because he could no longer go out with them on weekends.

“That’s what kind of sets the difference between someone who’s serious about what they do and someone who’s not serious. The person who’s not serious is going to make those kind of sacrifices, do what they have to do to better themselves versus partying and having a good time,” Santa Lucia said.

The training made his schoolwork difficult to get done, but he said it wasn’t “impossible to do.” As soon as his classes finished for the day, he would go to the gym and then do work.

“My first priority is to keep me sane by going to the gym,” Santa Lucia said.

His biggest weakness is timeliness. He said while doing a lot of “hustle and bustle,” it’s sometimes easy to lose track of time and become late for things. He had to make sure his organizational skills were on point so he could fit everything into his schedule, which was “very tough but doable.”

He said his family was ecstatic when he won his first competition.

“They knew ahead of time with my mentality and my focus I could take gold,” Santa Lucia said.

Tim Winder, UB sophomore engineering major, said Santa Lucia has been there for him since they met in third grade. Winder supported Santa Lucia through his skull tumor diagnosis and knew Santa Lucia would be “the exception.”

John Chiarenza, Santa Lucia’s softball and football coach, coached him from seven to 14 years old. Chiarenza said Santa Lucia’s biggest growth is his fight through his adversity. He described him as dedicated, intelligent and always caring and smiling.

Moving to achieve

David and Santa Lucia are also co-owners of Santa Lucia Global LLC videography company. Santa Lucia hopes to see his company expand nationwide and become “majorly successful.”

“It was a mixture of my brother and his fitness competition that prompted it and also the fact that he was he was into modeling and so we kind of took those ideas and thought what more can we do this and figured that professional videography as a production team was probably the best route for this,” Santa Lucia said.

They moved to Las Vegas on Nov. 28 because they felt more videography opportunities are available and it is “the center of attention.” Santa Lucia “can’t make any guarantees” but he plans to stay enrolled in UB and take online classes for as long as he can.

“We are the experts and we want people to know that we are the experts,” Santa Lucia said.

Santa Lucia and his brother work with a representative from Colorado to expand their company. They plan to create promotional videos for models, work with music videos and work in casinos.

Santa Lucia described him and his brother as “crazy thinkers” and sees himself going somewhere “where no one can ever possibly imagine but in our own heads we understand we’re going to get there.”

Santa Lucia emphasized in surrounding oneself with people who “think big.”

Santa Lucia thinks his move will positively impact his bodybuilding career because he feels there are more Natural Muscle Association shows out west. He hopes to compete in more shows in the spring and become a professional bodybuilder.

“If you really want to do something, just do it and don’t let what anyone else says influence you because that’s going to kill you,” David said.

Hannah is a senior news editor and can be reached at hannah.stein@ubspectrum.com.