At 10-years-old, Lucille “Lucy” Polanco had already found her way in the world.
Lucy knew what she wanted to be when she grew up. And with a heart larger than her ambition, Lucy actively embraced every day of her life.
“Her dream was to become a veterinarian,” says her mother, Maria Castillo Polanco in an interview.
“Her love for all animals was so much bigger than anything else in Lucy’s life,” she said. Polanco said her daughter was a pure, loving child with huge dreams an empathetic heart.
“I always had to make sure I had money in the car because if there was a homeless person in the street, for sure, we were going to help them because she would say ‘what if he or she is God’,” said Polanco.
“Lucy was smart, sassy, funny, loving and caring, all rolled into one.”
Lucy grew up in Cypress with her brother, Hector, Jr., and her puppies Pearl & Pirate. She and her brother were “inseparable,” says her mom. “Anything her older brother Hector wanted to do; Lucy was there, doing it too,” she said.
Hector played baseball, so Lucy became an “avid” softball player. “Nothing would hold Lucy back,” said Maria.
Nevertheless, despite her athleticism, her mom said Lucy was every bit the little lady as well. “You would never catch Lucy with a bad manicure or without an awesome glitterball of slime. “She loved slime.”
Lucy even played flag football with her best friend, Hailey Starkey. They were the only two girls on the team, but they played.
Hailey and Lucy were super close, having been best friends since their diaper days. “It all started at daycare when we were 6 months old,” says Hailey. “We were diaper buddies. Who knew we would be best friends from that point on,” she says?
“Me and Lucy always hoped to be in the same class at school so we would be together all day,” she added. Hailey and Lucy attended Arnold Elementary in Cypress.
Happily enjoying 5th grade in October of 2019, one day Lucy came home with the sniffles.
“Lucy came down with a cold/flu,” recalls her mom. Since it was Fall, she and her husband Hector, Sr. decided to keep Lucy home from school thinking if it was a cold, they didn’t want it to spread.
Then, the sniffles turned into headaches, then slight disorientation, prompting Lucy’s mom to call the doctor for an evaluation.
Lucy’s mom recounts how quickly it all happened. Polanco said she witnessed the slow-motion devolution from having a normal child, staying home from school, into an ordeal, overnight.
Even worse, Lucy’s condition quickly became a cascading calamity for which there was no known cure.
Lucy’s best friend Hailey said she remembers a dark day in school when suddenly, she realized something seemed horribly wrong.
“One day Mr. B., our 5th grade teacher, was talking about how Lucy’s parents were both in the military. Suddenly, Lucy ran outside so we thought it had made her sad,” she said. Then Hailey found out “it wasn’t what we thought.”
Hailey later learned that Lucy ran out because she was suddenly nauseous, and soon enough, was told what was causing Lucy to feel that way.
“It was cancer,” said Hailey, understanding that “Lucy had a brain tumor that they couldn’t take out.” Hailey remembers the night Lucy’s mom, Maria, called her mom with the news. Hailey had found out, so her mom told her everything.
“I was sad from that point on, but I stuck by Lucy the entire time,” said Hailey. “It was like a game; she would start to get better and then go back to getting worse. It was like a rollercoaster that went on for almost a year; it was traumatic,” she said.
Within days of the sniffles, Lucy was evaluated and placed in the pediatric unit at Miller MemorialCare in Long Beach, where she would eventually receive the limited treatment for her condition.
“Unfortunately, the vivacious 5th grader had been diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), an extremely rare form of brain cancer for which there is virtually no chance of survival.
DIPG is a type of tumor that starts in the brain stem, the part of the brain just above the back of the neck and connected to the spine. The brain stem controls a human’s motor functioning, including breathing, heart rate and the nerves and muscles that help us see, hear, walk, talk and eat.
“These tumors are called gliomas because they grow from glial cells, a type of supportive cell in the brain,” said Maria.
Lucy’s family stayed strong yet was obviously devasted with Lucy’s diagnosis and prognosis. Hailey and the rest of Lucy’s friends were shocked too. “All we knew after hearing the prognosis is that Lucy was going to be that miracle, she was going to make it,” her mom said.
Tragically, DIPG tumors cannot be surgically removed because of their remote location where they become interwoven with previously non-affected brain tissue, which complicates the delicate and complex functions the brainstem controls.
These tumors are more often seen in school-aged children and they’re deadly — DIPG and glioma tumors are responsible for the highest number of childhood deaths from primary brain tumors, her mom discovered.
Moreover, DIPG is a medical menace that strikes without warning and grows aggressively.
According to her mom, just three days after her diagnosis Lucy began to lose all mobility and speech.
Lucy courageously decided to be a “brave warrior” to battle this new companion in her life. “She kept us united in prayer through her love of God, classic rock, sports and of course, ‘The Office’.”
“As a family, and as a community, she brought us all together,” her mom says. “I received messages from strangers telling us how they’d never prayed before, or now they are going to Church because of Lucy.”
“Throughout her journey, Lucy brought us closer to God and strengthened our faith,” said Maria. Off and on during her hospital treatments, Lucy was allowed to be home to be comfortable.
“During the pandemic, our Church, St. Irenaeus held Mass on the grass field, and every Sunday, there she was. Lucy was out there with us in her wheelchair, when she wasn’t able to swallow, her big brother would receive the Eucharist for her,” said Maria.
“One time, she was able to receive it herself.”
“After 30 rounds of radiation, though, we saw very little improvement in Lucy,” said Maria. Too soon, Lucy was able to communicate only by using an alphabet board. And the right-handed Lucy had to spell everything using only her left hand.
Even as doctors and medical experts tried everything possible to arrest the disease, Lucy’s condition continued to worsen.
“Lucy never gained her mobility or speech,” said Maria. “We saw her slipping away from us,” her mom said. “That’s how aggressive DIPG can be.”
Maria now understands that most families have never heard of this childhood cancer. She said the deadly disease affects a mere 300/400 children per year in the United States, making it statistically insignificant and extremely rare and deadly.”
Without warning, Lucy, the athlete, lay trapped in a world that afforded her no mobility and severely limited her ability to communicate. Yet, Lucy remained at peace, she was courageous and relatively upbeat as this horrible disease took its toll.
Lucy never gave up.
“We’ve seen Lucy push through her physical therapy as she tried to regain strength in her body, endure countless numbers of MRIs and medicines, and all with an insurmountable amount of resilience, style and grace,” said her parents.
In addition to the loving support of her entire family, her BFF Hailey stayed with her throughout the entire ordeal. “It’s hard to talk about this sometimes but I work through it,” Hailey said.
“I sat by her the entire time. I would go to her house and climb in her hospital bed and just lay with her. We always used to watch food eating A.S.M.R. and MukBangs. It was Lucy’s favorite thing to watch, and we would also watch movies,” said Hailey.
“We used to communicate using a plastic chart with letters and she would point to the letter and spell the word. I got to join her in her music therapy. We laughed so much. The best part was getting to make slime with Lucy. She had a huge slime shop. We would create different kinds of slime.”
For Hailey, “it was scary not knowing what was going to happen next, but you just had to live your everyday life,” she said.
“I’m glad I got to go along with her on her journey of life,” she said.
Although her parents knew there was “zero chance” of survival, Maria said Lucy realized only a few days before she died that her time had come.
“She was shocked,” her mom said, “but Lucy bravely said she was ready and wanted to be with her Lord.” Lucy always enjoyed a very strong faith.
Less than a year from the softball field and practicing flag-football, Lil’ Lucille “Lucy” Polanco took her last breath. Lucy gained her beautiful angel wings on Sept. 30, 2020.
DIPG took her life, but Lucy’s spirit prevailed and her legacy endures.
“I know Lucy’s mission on earth was bigger than any of us can understand,” said Maria. “It breaks my heart tremendously not having her,” she said, adding that “our lives will never be the same, but I also understand that her mission is not over.”
According to the family, Lucy’s last wish was for her family to raise awareness about this childhood cancer so in the future, there would hopefully be fewer DIPG warriors like her.
“Lucy also wanted us to continue to make slime for kids battling cancer, she loved slime so much she started her own slime shop while she was sick,” her mom said.
Maria and her husband, Hector, Sr. have started a nonprofit foundation named after her slime shop named “Lucy’s Lil’ Korn Slime Foundation.”
Since her death, the Polanco family said they have learned that this killer form of cancer (DIPG),