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He lost his battle with cancer, but not before completing his dream of earning a college degree

Ochoa Family
Cal Lutheran student lost his battle with colon cancer just weeks before his graduation, but his family will be on hand to accept the diploma and celebrate his accomplishment.

Sal Ochoa's family will be at commencement at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. Ochoa's younger brother will accept the diploma.

The stages are up, and the chairs are in place for this week’s graduation ceremonies at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.

It’s a time of joy, and happiness.

But, it will be combination of pride, and sadness for one family. Sal Ochoa lost his two year battle with colon cancer just weeks before graduation.

"He completed all but except obviously the finals. He had A's in all his classes...he was a stellar, stellar student," said Dr. Gabriella Ochoa Del Gaudio, Sal’s mother.

She said he loved people, and people loved him He was a character. Ochoa was one of four kids, and a huge sports fan.

"Sal absolutely was a sports person.," said his mother. "He grew up in a baseball family. But at 6' 2" and 320 pounds, he didn't have the baseball body...he had the football body. Football people recruited him. He tried football as a little kid, and they (coaches) would tell him to hit harder. But, he said he didn't want to hurt his teammates, because he was so much bigger than them. That was Sal's heart."

Ochoa Del Gaudio says Sal was also a good student. After graduating from Granada Hills High School, he decided to combine his interest in academics and sports for a career. She is a psychologist, which fascinated him. So, he went to Cal Lutheran in Thousand Oaks, where he played football, and studied psychology, with a goal of becoming a sports psychologist.

Two years ago, Ochoa noticed he was having some pain when he was working out during football practice. No one thought much of it at first, and he was given standard therapy and treatment for back pain.

But soon, he was having more intense pain. Ochoa Del Gaudio took him to an emergency room. She thought he might have appendicitis. "When they scanned it...I still remember the doctor's face...he was just so stoic...and he's like Sal has cancer...what I believe is advanced cancer." It turned out it was Stage IV colon cancer.

But, she said Sal took the news calmly, and asked what was next, and what he needed to do to tackle it.
What came next was clinical lab trial treatments, chemotherapy, and rounds of hospital stays. It’s hard for Ochoa Del Gaudio to talk about it, but she wants to because she is so proud of her son’s determination, and bravery.

With all that was going on, he wanted to get his degree. With the help of some professors, he stepped up his classwork to make room for time off he might need for chemotherapy.

He got the work done, but he passed April 3. Ochoa Del Gaudio believes that drive to get his degree helped keep him going.

"When you're facing death the way Sal faced it, with fearlessness, having goals, it keeps you feeling okay, (and he thought) this is why I am still here," said Ochoa del Gaudio.

But he fought all the way to the end. In fact, he even got a ring, and asked his longtime girlfriend to marry him.
Sal’s family will be at Cal Lutheran’s football stadium Friday morning for graduation ceremonies. And, when his name is read, Sal’s younger brother, Tony, will be there to accept the diploma for him.

The family is hoping to remember Sal in another way as well. They are setting up a scholarship at Granada Hills High School for student athletes who are facing adversity of some type in their lives.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.