John Polio is a gastroenterologist who specializes in liver disease. When asked to describe his father, John’s son Andy Polio says, “He is the best person I know. To say he is a role model is putting it lightly. He is so caring and dedicated. He has a crazy sense of humor that has permeated all aspects of his life. If you talk to his patients, they see him as a very caring human being.”
When Andy speaks about John, it is with deep love, respect and admiration. It is no surprise that Andy has decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and pursue a career in the medical field. In 2012, after graduating from college, Andy Polio took a job at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. He worked on clinical trials which were evaluating treatments for lung cancer. He worked side by side with people who were conducting clinical trials for other illnesses, including pancreatic cancer. Dana Farber was an amazing place to work and Andy was surrounded by good people during his time there. He enjoyed his work and loved getting to see what new options were becoming available to treat some of the most deadly cancers.
On February 11, 2014, Andy got a phone call from his father. Andy remembers every moment from that evening. He had just arrived home and was sitting down to eat when his phone rang. He could tell immediately from his father’s tone of voice that something was wrong. Andy’s father told him that he had been very tired for a couple of weeks and had been experiencing some back pain. John Polio’s doctor had ordered a CT scan. The CT scan revealed that he had Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer, which had spread to his liver.
Andy was devastated by the news. He began thinking about the worst case scenario. Since he had worked in cancer research, he knew that his father would have to undergo chemotherapy and then possibly enroll in a clinical trial. Andy knew that the prognosis for Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer was extremely poor, with most patients surviving only weeks or months. Andy became overwhelmed thinking that his father might not get to meet his future wife, or see his future grandchildren, or walk his sister, Sarah, down the aisle.
John was only 61 when he was diagnosed with inoperable Pancreatic Cancer. Andy had always assumed that they had many more years together as a family. Overwhelming sadness soon turned to anger, and Andy went through a period where he had difficulty eating and sleeping. He felt himself becoming consumed by negative emotions. Andy credits his sister Sarah with helping to pull him out of his downhill spiral. Andy and Sarah discussed actions they could take to honor the father they both loved so dearly. In March, they decided they would run a marathon in celebration of their dad. Sarah and Andy decided that their goal race would be the New York City Marathon. Andy explained that they chose New York City Marathon because it is one of the world’s largest, most iconic races. Also, since the marathon is held in November, this gave them six months to train for their race.
The previous year, Andy had run a half-marathon in Providence, but he did not consider himself to be a very serious runner. Andy typically ran 3-5 miles three days per week. Running a full marathon was a goal both Andy and Sarah had and now they had the motivation to take the training seriously. Andy says, “I knew my dad had a tough road ahead of him, so we wanted to do something to show him how much we cared about him.” Andy and Sarah wanted to run the marathon and fundraise for a charity. They found Project Purple and felt that it was the perfect organization to partner with for their marathon.
When they first began fundraising, Sarah and Andy set a goal of raising $14,000. By September, they had raised approximately $7,000. After they decided to reach out to their father’s colleagues, their donations jumped overnight to $25,000. Andy attributes the outpouring of support to the fact that their father is such a beloved member of their community. When his co-workers and patients heard that he had been diagnosed with Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer, everyone wanted to show their support. Andy says, “Once the word got out that we were running for my dad, everyone who was touched by him in some way emailed and called us.” John’s former patients contacted Andy and said, “Your dad treated me. What can I do to help?” Andy was amazed and humbled by the outpouring of love and support from their community.
New York City Marathon weekend was an extraordinary experience for Andy and his family. Big city marathons provide a festive experience. The race expo had a party-like atmosphere, with thousands of runners milling about excitedly. The pre-race Project Purple dinner was a highlight for the Polio family. Sarah and Andy received an award for raising an astonishing $44,000. One of the most meaningful and enjoyable aspects of the dinner for Andy was getting to meet other families who have been touched by Pancreatic Cancer.
Andy sums up his New York City Marathon experience as “amazing”. He describes running over the Verrazano Bridge at the race start with thousands of other runners as “an awesome high”. His race bib was purple and he had written “for dad” on it. Several other runners told him that they had been touched by pancreatic cancer also, and that they appreciated and respected and appreciated his running in honor of his father.
John stood out on the course at mile 18 so that he could cheer on Andy and Sarah while they ran. Andy said this was the perfect place to see his dad, because by mile 18 his adrenaline had worn off and he was beginning to ask himself why he had chosen to run the marathon in the first place. Seeing his dad was a huge motivation to keep running, and it is a memory that Andy will cherish forever.
Andy kept himself going when he hit low moments by telling himself, “Dad has done and sacrificed so much for me. I can run a few more miles.” Andy said that he has seen his dad moved to tears only twice in his life, and seeing his kids run the NYCM in his honor was one of those times.
Despite experiencing a few low moments along the way, Andy and Sarah Polio finished the New York City Marathon. Andy says, “The whole experience is hard to put into words. Not just the race, but the whole weekend was awesome.” Andy felt that being involved with Project Purple brought meaning to his marathon experience. He believes that it was an honor to be involved with the work that Project Purple does and he was happy to be able to contribute to the organization. Although Andy is headed to medical school in the fall, he hopes to run another marathon in the future. For the time being, his father, John, continues his treatment for Pancreatic Cancer. The Polio family holds out hope that a cure for Pancreatic Cancer will be discovered in the near future.