Two young Burbank locals are bringing the community together for a fundraising event to support a friend of theirs who is fighting liver cancer.
In November 2020, Zyla Nyahay was diagnosed with fibrolamellar carcinoma, an extremely rare form of liver cancer. Since this diagnosis, Nyahay has tried every medical treatment option available with little success. Now, she is in search of alternative treatments and is otherwise facing a prognosis of six months to one year to live.
It wasn’t until just over a year after her 2020 diagnosis that Nyahay revealed her condition to her friends. Two of her close companions, Lauren Schlander and Connor McDonald, who studied at John Burroughs High School alongside Nyahay, then quickly decided to kick-start a fundraiser to support her next steps in exploring treatment options. They also set up a GoFundMe page in Nyahay’s name.
McDonald had previously experienced a close friend of his, Christopher Wilke, passing away from another rare form of cancer, cholangiocarcinoma. He subsequently created the ChangeWorks! Foundation to benefit families dealing with pediatric cancer. McDonald says that the experience of witnessing friends battle cancer made him determined to collaborate with Schlander and help Nyahay through her treatment journey.
“Cancer has always played a huge role in my life, so when Zyla told Lauren and me in November 2020 that she was diagnosed with a rare liver cancer, it just shattered my heart,” McDonald said. “A year went by of having to watch my lively and purehearted friend undergo such unfair circumstances. As time went on, traditional treatments stopped working and I started feeling helpless as I sat there. That is when Lauren and I had the idea of putting on a magic show fundraiser in order to raise money for her family to relieve some financial burdens and research other treatment options.”
Nyahay graduated from JBHS alongside McDonald in 2019 and was a standout performer in the school’s drama department during her years attending the school. McDonald describes her as an optimistic person who is “always filled with excitement and energy that is so contagious you can’t help but want to be her friend,” and he “cherish[es] every moment” they get to spend together. Schlander, who met Nyahay when the two worked together on a play at JBHS, likewise admires the charisma and resilience embodied by her close friend.
“Zyla is one of those people where, once you meet her, you instantly feel like you’ve known her your whole life,” Schlander said. “She is creative, energetic, and lights up a room. She is also one of the strongest people I’ve ever met. She has gone through procedure after procedure but still has managed to be hopeful throughout the entire process. I don’t know how she does it. She doesn’t let cancer define her and continues to live her life, as normally as she can, even with her diagnosis. She is hands down one of the best people I have ever had the privilege to meet and I know that everyone who meets her feels the same way.”
Schlander and McDonald began working on the event days after hearing the news from Nyahay regarding her condition. Although it was initially a struggle finding a venue for the fundraiser during the COVID-19 pandemic, Burbank’s The Colony Theatre stepped in and offered their venue and staff for free once hearing about Nyahay’s circumstances. McDonald, who is a member of The Magic Castle Junior Society, reached out to some of the most talented magicians in their program, who then volunteered to donate their services to the event. The team organizing the gathering mapped out the hour and a half long show while implementing fundraising elements such as raffle baskets, food and beverage services, merchandise, and more.
“Due to all of us working on the show being college students with little to no background on scripting, directing, and producing a show, many extremely talented people around Burbank have generously donated their expertises to guide us all in the right direction and make this show more than we could have ever asked for,” Schlander said.
The fundraiser will be “an evening of magic” taking place on Saturday, Feb. 12, at 7 p.m. at The Colony Theatre, with doors opening at 5:30 p.m. Four magicians from The Magic Castle Junior Society will perform many new, never-before seen magic tricks to entertain guests of the event and to honor Nyahay. These performers are McDonald, Gonçalo Sousa, Kenshin Amagi, and Michael Campion, who portrayed the character Jackson Fuller in the Netflix series, Fuller House.
McDonald says attendees can anticipate “laughter, love, absurdity, a little bit of danger, and a whole lot of fun all wrapped into one gigantic fundraising event.” Schlander adds that she has been truly impressed by the production as she witnesses rehearsals for the upcoming show.
“As someone who is working on this show and sees how hard these magicians have been working to make [it] unforgettable, I can’t stress enough how blown away I am at what they have come up with,” Schlander said. “We are treating this like a full production and will be working day and night until the day of the show to make [it] one that people have not experienced before.”
The original goal of Schlander and McDonald was to raise a total of $15,000 for the Nyahay family. Since the GoFundMe page they set up for Nyahay has thus far garnered nearly $11,000 with just under two weeks left until the show takes place, they’re hopeful that they can exceed this initial expectation. Aside from collecting funds, Schlander and McDonald hope to create a positive, enjoyable environment at the gathering that reflects the joy that Nyahay has provided in their lives.
“On top of fundraising money, our other, equally important goal is to have fun,” McDonald said. “From the very beginning, we knew that we wanted a magic show that would match the same lively personality of Zyla, and that would make the audience leave with a huge smile on their faces. All of the magic has Zyla’s sparkle all over it, and I hope we can give the audience the same loveable feeling that Zyla has given to us.”