Mary Napolitano joined the Lustgarten Walk to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer, and money for research, even before she was diagnosed with the disease.
She kept coming to the walk amid her six-year battle with it. When she died in 2011 at age 44, her sister Nancy Ticali of North Massapequa and family members agreed to continue the tradition. On Sunday, they were at Jones Beach State Park for the 23rd annual walk, carrying a white sign with letters in purple reading, “Moving in Mary’s Memory” and with a photo of her standing and smiling.
“She was compassionate. She was a beautiful person inside and out,” Ticali said of her younger sister, a fitness instructor from Howard Beach, Queens, who also raised money for childhood cancer research.
“She’s our strength," Ticali said. "She inspires me every day.”
Ticali and more than 2,000 others walked 1 or 3 miles Sunday at the event — hosted by the Woodbury-based Lustgarten Foundation — to raise awareness of the deadly disease and money to fight an affliction the American Cancer Society has projected will kill more than 50,000 Americans in 2023. The five-year survival rate of pancreatic cancer has improved over the years but remains grim, at about 12%, according the cancer society.
Survivors, like Suffolk County Sheriff Errol D. Toulon Jr., 61, said they feel grateful. Toulon was diagnosed in late 2002 and had surgery the following January.
“I'll never forget it,” Toulon said, recalling the day of his operation.
“They wheeled me into the elevator to take me up to the operating room." he said, "Seeing my parents and my wife, and possibly saying goodbye and I love them [for] the very last time, is something that's indelible in my mind.”
Toulon spoke in front of a crowd in purple, the color signifying pancreatic cancer awareness. Many in attendance wore shirts bearing the names and photos of a husband, a grandfather, an aunt or other loved one taken by the disease.
Toulon said complications from the surgery landed him in the hospital at least 10 times for a week or longer, yet there he was Sunday — walking and raising awareness.
“Somehow through the grace of God, I am here 20 years later to be able to hopefully support survivors, support their families and hopefully be an inspiration because you cannot give up the fight,” the sheriff said to cheers and applause.
Survival rates are much higher when the cancer is found before it spreads. People with pancreatic cancer usually have no symptoms until the disease has become severe or has already spread to other organs, according to the American Cancer Society.
“What makes it so challenging and nefarious as a disease is that many patients don't know that they have it until it's too late,” said Dr. Daniel King with Northwell Health Cancer Institute, who walked Sunday.
For Ilene Schuman, who’s in her 60s, the cancer was detected when she went for routine testing for an unrelated procedure. At the time of her diagnosis in 2022, she knew little about pancreatic cancer except that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs died of it.
“We know how that story ended — not too well,” the longtime preschool teacher from Great Neck said. “I was one of the fortunate ones.”
After surgery, chemotherapy and radiation that ended in January, Schuman said she’s felt like herself again and is back in the classroom with her 3-year-old students.
Her story is one reason why more research is needed, Schuman said.
“We don't yet have screening approaches for pancreatic cancer like we do for colon cancer or breast cancer, but we need research to develop screening modalities to find cancer earlier,” said King, who was Schuman’s medical oncologist.
The walk, which organizers said was expected to raise more than $800,000 this year, is part of an ongoing effort to continue the momentum to invest in research and develop a cure. All funds raised go toward research, organizers said.
Ethel Dempsey, 80, of Patchogue, walked Sunday in honor of her husband, Vernon Lewis Dempsey, a Navy veteran who died of pancreatic cancer in 2010 at age 66. His family wore purple shirts with his initials in bold “VLD.”
The family was there to “leave no doubt,” as was printed on the back of their shirts. It was his favorite quote from the film “Remember the Titans.”
“I’m hopeful,” Dempsey said, “that they will find a cure” so no families will have to endure a loss like hers.