Survivor Stories
June 27, 2023 • 6 Min

A Fighting Spirit

Dr. Errol D. Toulon, Jr.

Pancreatic cancer survivor Dr. Errol Toulon Jr., Sheriff of Suffolk County
  • Follow-up scan after successful Hodgkin’s lymphoma treatment finds pancreatic cancer
  • Whipple procedure and a difficult recovery
  • Later health complications from my lymphoma chemotherapy
  • Return to health

In 1996, when I was just 34 and the captain of the New York City Department of Corrections, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Reeling from shock, I dreaded I wouldn’t live long enough to see my two young sons graduate from elementary school. I immediately underwent treatment with chemotherapy and radiation. As one of the side effects, I lost my hair, but I never lost my fighting spirit and clung to my doctor’s assertion that my family and I would get through my illness together.

Despite some setbacks, my treatment worked, and my family and I went back to living the lives we had before cancer changed everything. For the next five years, my annual scans showed no evidence of disease. Six years after my lymphoma diagnosis, the unthinkable happened: I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. My cancer was discovered incidentally; I went for a routine post-lymphoma monitoring appointment, and my oncologist ordered a PET scan, which was a new test at the time, and which revealed the mass on my pancreas. This diagnosis was a gut punch, and I was terrified I couldn’t beat cancer a second time, especially as formidable an opponent as pancreatic cancer. I feared I wouldn’t watch my sons graduate from high school or experience all of life’s important milestones with them. My maternal grandmother had died years earlier from pancreatic cancer, which heightened my panic even more.

A New Cancer Challenge

Ironically, two days after the PET scan, I became jaundiced and started experiencing other pancreatic cancer symptoms. My cancer hadn’t metastasized, and two specialists agreed I was a candidate for the Whipple surgery, which would give me the best chance for long-term survival. I underwent the grueling 10-hour procedure to remove part of my stomach, the head of the pancreas, part of the bile duct, the gallbladder, lymph nodes in the area of the pancreas, and the duodenum, which is the first part of the small intestine that connects to the stomach. As I was being wheeled into the operating room, all I could focus on was my crippling anxiety that this could be the last time I saw my family, and I made sure to tell them how much I loved them. In fact, I was so afraid of not surviving the surgery that I even prepared a suit for my burial.

Recovery was incredibly hard, and I felt betrayed by my own body to the point where I barely recognized myself; I was once an avid hockey player and skilled athlete, weighing 230 pounds of muscle, and after my Whipple, I was listless and weak, weighing just 140 pounds. However, I recognize how fortunate I was that no further treatment was needed. I was beyond lucky to have the love and support of my family, friends, and neighbors during this emotional roller coaster. Six weeks later, though, several of my symptoms returned—including jaundice—and I ended up back in the hospital suffering from primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare, potentially life-threatening condition involving inflammation, scarring, and narrowing of the bile ducts, and I had a biliary stent put in. Alarmingly, the stent was inserted incorrectly and needed to be fixed, and as a result, I battled multiple infections, fever, and even a collapsed lung. I wondered, how much more I could endure, physically, emotionally, and mentally. And, as if I hadn’t been through enough already, I had to reinvent myself professionally and work toward a new career that would be easier on my body because I no longer had the stamina to continue as a corrections officer.

After a long recovery and diligent work establishing a new career path, health problems struck again. In 2006, I suffered from a cardiac tamponade, a condition where fluid prevents the heart from beating properly, thought to be a side effect of the chemotherapy I had received for lymphoma a decade earlier. I was rushed to the hospital, my situation so dire that a priest administered last rites. Again, I persevered.

The Power of Resiliency

Going through these health crises, followed by the absolutely life-shattering loss of my first wife, has taught me just how precious and tenuous life is, and that everyone experiences challenging times profoundly testing their resilience. My loving support system, my determination to stay positive and focused, and the power of faith and prayer sustained and comforted me throughout all of the health battles I faced and have given me the courage to envision and plan for my future.

Today, I’m remarried, healthy, and grateful for every day. One day while I was recovering from my Whipple surgery, I looked out my den window and prayed that if I were given the opportunity, I’d do something great with my life and continue to live a life of purpose. I’ve lived up to that promise; in 2017, I was elected the first African American Sheriff of Suffolk County, New York, a position I was re-elected to in 2021. In this role, I work tirelessly to keep my Long Island community safe, helping incarcerated individuals rebuild their lives, making sure the elderly, youth, and those less fortunate are cared for, and serving as a positive role model and valuable resource to my constituents.

I’ve learned the power of perspective, enjoying each day as it comes and finding time for meaningful work, my family (including my baby granddaughter!), and hobbies that give me joy, like playing hockey, reading, and listening to jazz music. Overcoming these life-threatening health experiences has instilled in me a passion for empathizing and helping others with their diagnoses and serving as a conduit to give patients and their families advice, strength, and most importantly, a reason to be hopeful.

In honor of Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month last November, I supported the Lustgarten Foundation because I know research produces real results. It is the only way to advance pancreatic cancer prevention, early detection, and new treatments, and is the most critical factor for transforming pancreatic cancer into a curable disease. No one knows if and when this devastating illness will strike them or a loved one. If it can happen to me—someone who was young and otherwise healthy—then it can affect anyone. As a community, we need to ensure the Lustgarten Foundation continues to fund the most innovative research that will give patients like me the best chance for survival and quality of life.

Dr. Errol D. Toulon, Jr., Suffolk County, New York, Sheriff, lives by the adage that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. His courage, resilience, and perseverance have been tested repeatedly, and he continues to manage whatever life throws at him with unshakable strength, infinite grace, and relentless optimism. This story was originally published by the Lustgarten Foundation.

Watch Dr. Toulon share his story in his own words in “Appreciation for Humanity.”