When Laura Polen got her diagnosis paperwork from her oncologist’s office last summer, she chose not to open it.
She already knew it was bad — it was pancreatic cancer and knowing what stage it was wouldn’t help.
“That was the hardest day of all, being told you have pancreatic cancer,” Polen, 69, said from her home in Jericho on Wednesday, a day before she underwent surgery to remove cancerous tissue. “In your head, you’ve always heard it’s such a terrible cancer to have.”
But that didn’t mean Polen, with her family at her side, wasn’t going to fight it.
This weekend marks an important moment in their yearlong struggle to beat the disease. Polen is recovering from a recent surgery to remove her tumors, and her family and friends are marching in her honor Sunday at the Lustgarten Foundation’s Long Island Pancreatic Cancer Walk at Jones Beach.
“She’s been so strong this whole time,” said Polen’s daughter Merryl Polen, 39, of Commack. “It’s been a time for our family to come together.”
The annual walk raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Lustgarten Foundation, the country’s largest private funder of pancreatic cancer research. This year, Merryl is captain of the team with the largest number of donors, with more than 150 donors and more than $10,300 raised.
Pancreatic cancer is notoriously difficult to treat. For all stages combined, the one-year relative survival rate is 20 percent, and the five-year rate is 7 percent, according to the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research.
For Laura, a retired teacher, her diagnosis was all the more startling because she had just finished treatment for lymphoma and been declared in remission less than four months earlier.
She was on the golf course in August when she was hit with a lightheaded spell that seemed to last for days.
Blood tests confirmed it was cancer again — this time in her pancreas. Doctors at one practice told her the best treatment they could provide was to “make her comfortable.”
“You look at each other and you don’t know what to say,” said Jim Polen, 70, her husband of 49 years.
Laura wasn’t ready to give up and she began chemotherapy treatments with a doctor in the Bronx twice a week, every other week. At the time, Merryl was pregnant with her daughter Dylan, now 1.
“Selfishly, I thought is mom going to meet this new baby?” she said.
Her desire to help led her and her younger sister Shari Hochhauser to raise money for the Lustgarten Foundation’s annual walk last year. But Merryl Polen wanted to make a bigger effort this year.
She began emailing updates on her mother’s health to friends and donors, and donations quickly came in.
“Everyone wants to be there in the good times,” she said. “And when things happen that are not good, it’s nice to have people be able to support you in a positive way.”
In September, Laura was finally cleared for a surgery called the Whipple procedure, where doctors try to remove tumors and the surrounding tissue. After a night out with Jim, she checked into Mount Sinai Hospital early Thursday.
The surgery took eight hours, but she emerged on the other side with good news: Doctors were successful in removing the cancerous tissue, Merryl said. Laura faces months of recovery and physical therapy but said she’s looking forward to the future and the continued support of her family.
“The surgery is the beginning of the end,” Jim said. “She can start back on her regular life.”