Runner Sarah Polio

Sarah ­­­Polio remembers very clearly the day that she first learned her father was ill. She had come home later than planned after attending a meeting at her law school. There was a note waiting for her that read, “Sarah, we have to talk to you about something serious. Come wake us up no matter what time it is.” Sarah says, “My father is my rock. It was always one of my biggest fears that something would happen to him.” Her mother and father sat down with Sarah and became emotional as they began speaking. The news they had to share was not good. Sarah’s father, Dr. John Polio, had been diagnosed with Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer.

The Polio family
The Polio family

Sarah immediately felt that she needed to do something to honor her father. Though she and her brother Andy both ran for health and to maintain fitness, neither considered themselves to be “serious” runners. Sarah came up with the idea of running a marathon as a way to raise money and honor their father. She looked at the New York City Marathon website and found Pancreatic Cancer charity Project Purple. As she researched the charity, Sarah discovered that she liked the organization’s message and close-knit feel. She and Andy decided that they would apply to run the New York City Marathon as a team. It was something meaningful that the siblings felt that they could do together as a way of paying tribute to their dad.

Sarah set up their joint Crowdrise fundraising page. Each morning, she checked the donations she had received and read the sweet and encouraging messages people had written for her father. The support and love their community showed the Polio family buoyed Sarah’s spirits as she trained for the marathon. Sarah and Andy had started their fundraising efforts by sending out emails to all of their own contacts. Eventually, the Chairman of the Department of Surgery at St. Francis Hospital, where John Polio had practiced medicine, offered to help Andy and Sarah with their fundraising campaign. He sent out a mass email to the entire hospital staff, asking people to donate to Sarah and Andy’s Crowdrise page attached. The next morning, just prior to heading out the door for an 18 mile run, Sarah checked her email and saw an outpouring of messages from the hospital staff telling her how much her father had impacted their lives. Those emails gave Sarah the boost she needed to get through a very challenging long run.  Sarah and Andy had originally set a goal of raising $7,000. They ended up collecting over $44,000 for Project Purple.

Sarah ran intermittently prior to signing up for the marathon. As she got into training for the race, she discovered that running had a very positive impact on her mental and emotional state. Her runs allowed her to clear her head and think about her dad.  Sarah reflects on her relationship with her father and says, “My dad is one of the most important people in my life. This has been very difficult. You never think something like this is going to happen to your family. It has completely changed my perspective on things. It makes me really cherish the relationships I have with my friends and family. It has changed my priorities. You never know how much time you have or how much time you are given with people you love. “

Sarah, Andy and their parents attended the Project Purple dinner the night before the marathon. Sarah found comfort in meeting the other families who had been affected by a Pancreatic Cancer diagnosis. She felt that being around those other families was like having a support group made up of people who all want to do something to make a difference in the world.

Sarah says, “Running the marathon is the greatest thing Andy and I have ever done. It was amazing to see the impact we felt we were able to make on behalf of and through Project Purple.” Sarah adds that the marathon experience was so beneficial to her and Andy because they sincerely felt the outpouring of support from friends, family and their father’s colleagues. Sarah believes that this show of support and solidarity had a positive effect on their Dad’s treatment.

Sarah and Andy have always shared a close bond. Sarah was so grateful to share the New York City Marathon experience with Andy. She loved knowing that she had someone with her who she could always count on. Fundraising and running together deepened their bond because they had worked hard towards their goals and accomplished something special together. Sarah says, “I realized how much I genuinely love him as my brother and how important he is to me.”

Andy & Sarah Polio
Andy & Sarah Polio

Andy is a faster runner than Sarah, but they started the race together. Sarah says, “One of my greatest memories was just getting to run with Andy.” They ran the first five miles together, and then got separated until they reconnected at mile 13. From there, they ran together until about mile 23. They saw their family at points along the course, which provided inspiration to keep pushing. Sarah felt the love and support of her family on the marathon course, and that love provided the mental and physical boost she needed to get to the finish line. Sarah believes that having her family out on the course was a real motivating factor for her and Andy She knew that 20 blocks equaled one mile. She would turn to Andy and say, “Only 40 blocks to go til we see mom and dad!” Sarah adds, “It was a memorable moment being able to run up to our Dad together.”

Sarah & Andy at the NYCM
Sarah & Andy at the NYCM

John’s Pancreatic Cancer diagnosis has changed the lives of everyone in the Polio family. Sarah explains, “We have always been a very close family. This has brought us closer together. I have become much more emotional in terms of telling people how I feel about them. This has made me more open and emotionally honest in a positive way. It makes me want to truly express my feelings to others.” Sarah did not know much about Pancreatic Cancer until her father was diagnosed with the disease. What she learned about the very low survival rates was incredibly daunting to her. Becoming involved with Project Purple helped her because she had found other people who understood what she was going through and who cared about her and her family.

John Polio was only given four to six months to live when he was first diagnosed, but now, over a year later, he is still doing well. John was recently awarded the “Distinguished Physician Award” by St. Francis Hospital, where he used to work. He is responding well to his current chemotherapy regimen and is enjoying his life.

Sarah and John Polio, the night he received his award from St. Francis Hospital
Sarah and John Polio, the night he received his award from St. Francis Hospital

Sarah is coming back to run with the Project Purple team this year. She will be running the Chicago Marathon in the fall of 2015, once again in honor of her father. Though Andy will not be able to join Sarah this year due to school commitments, he will be with her in spirit as she trains and runs to beat Pancreatic Cancer.


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