7,500 gather for Pancreatic Cancer Walk

Particpants warm up before the start of the Particpants warm up before the start of the Lustgarten Foundation's 13th annual Long Island Pancreatic Cancer Research Walk at Jones Beach. (Oct. 13, 2013) Photo Credit: Jim Staubitser

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Some of the 7,500 purple-clad walkers who turned out at Jones Beach Sunday for the Lustgarten Foundation's 13th annual Pancreatic Cancer Research Walk knew someone who had succumbed to the disease, and they walked in tribute.

Some, wearing the color that has come to be identified with pancreatic cancer, lost relatives and faced increased risk of developing it themselves. And a few had survived the disease, which the American Cancer Society estimates will kill 38,000 in the United States this year.

"I started [the walk] because of my sister, never knowing that I would be here for myself," said Howard Ebert, 68, a textile salesman from Plainview who was later diagnosed with the disease himself. He was alive, he believed, because the death of his sister, Marcia Ebert, from the disease almost 20 years ago inspired him to get regular screening.

After surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment, he lived. "I had a gift from my sister," he said. He has been in remission since Oct. 17, 2006.

In an interview on a blustery, sunny day, as the walkers began their orderly stampede from Field 5 through the underpass and out to the boardwalk, foundation president Robert F. Vizza said that funds raised by the walk -- organizers expected to top $1 million this year -- would go toward follow-up studies of a drug the FDA approved in September for treatment of pancreatic cancer.

"That's major. That's significant," Vizza said.

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Cablevision, Newsday's parent company, sponsored the 1-mile or 3-mile walk and underwrites the foundation's expenses, allowing all donations to go for research.

The Bethpage-based Lustgarten Foundation, which established the Pancreatic Cancer Research Laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 2012, is also sponsoring research on early detection of the disease, a goal Vizza called "key."

Those with a strong family history of pancreatic cancer can go for regular screening that can sometimes lead to a diagnosis. But most cases of pancreatic cancer aren't detected until the disease has spread, limiting treatment options.

Sisters Christina and Veronica Pollack of Brookhaven, who walked in memory of their father, Michael Pollack, a 53-year-old veterinarian, said the cancer that killed their father a year and a half ago was well advanced when it was discovered.

Christina, 29, a professional developer, and Veronica, 31, a speech pathologist, said he'd said not to look up the disease or its grim statistics when he was diagnosed. "That's not going to happen to me," he told them.

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They believed their dad, a man so vigorous he followed up chemotherapy with sessions at the gym, a man they only half-jokingly called Superman.

After his death, testing revealed that Veronica Pollack had the same genetic mutation as her father. But she did not feel powerless against the disease.

"The more we walk, the more we raise awareness, and the more people donate, the more likely we are to find a cure," she said.

Charles Dolan, chairman of the board of directors for the Lustgarten Foundation, told the crowd before the start that he was pleased to see so many survivors participating.

"It's wonderful to see that group growing," he said.

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