Survivor Stories
June 12, 2017 • 6 Min

Fighting On To See Her Children Grow Up

Jill Pechacek
  • Pancreatic cancer is her second cancer battle
  • BRCA-like genetic mutation
  • Trying different approved treatments
  • Raising funds to help others with pancreatic cancer

“There’s no place I’d rather be than right here with my three.”

These words are what motivate Dr. Jill Pechacek, devoted single mother of three, Colorado-based family physician and wellness expert, ovarian cancer survivor, and now, a pancreatic cancer patient, to keep courageously fighting and defying the odds.

A Devastating Diagnosis

Dr. Jill, as she is known to her patients, was first diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer in September 2014, after experiencing abdominal pain she thought was an ulcer brought on by her hectic work schedule. At the time, she was only 46 and felt blindsided by this devastating diagnosis. However, she approached the disease head-on, with the same positivity and resolve that have guided her through past challenges, including bravely undergoing surgery and treatment for ovarian cancer at 25 while she was a medical school student.

Throughout that experience, which she did not disclose to her medical school classmates and professors, she relied on her family and her faith, never once believing that she wouldn’t fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a doctor. “My experience with ovarian cancer profoundly challenged and changed me,” said Dr. Jill. “Now, I want to share my journey and experiences as a pancreatic cancer patient and inspire others by showing them what believing in yourself and having others believe in you can do.”

Setting a Goal of More than 10 Years

Dr. Jill was diagnosed when her children Hawk, Brooks, and Hope were 12, 10 and 8, respectively. When she was first diagnosed, she would ask her doctors for 10 . . . 10 years so she could see her three children graduate from high school. Dr. Daniel Von Hoff of TGen was the first doctor she saw who didn’t avert his eyes or become uncomfortable with this question. He squeezed her hand, looked directly at her and said, “Dr. Jill, why would you stop at 10 years?” Dr. Von Hoff has led Dr. Jill’s care ever since, and through imagery, strong faith, and the loving support of her community, she can visualize these milestones and is optimistic that she will be there for them. In fact, she credits having things to look forward to, including events in her children’s lives and commitments she has made to other people, as helping her stay positive and grateful for every day that she has been given. Dr. Jill says that her family is the happiest and closest it has ever been, and that having a life-threatening disease drives them closer.

In addition to the strong support she receives from her family, she is extremely grateful for the treatments that have gotten her to this point. She has exhausted all FDA-approved pancreatic cancer therapies and is currently being treated with an ovarian cancer chemotherapy drug, based on her genetic mutation that utilizes a BRCA-like pathway. She remains hopeful that this chemotherapy can continue to suppress new growth and provide a high quality of life and quality time. To complement her chemotherapy, she has also undergone multiple surgeries, including a segmental pancreatectomy and resection of the liver, and while she suffers from treatment side effects including significant neuropathy, she doesn’t let them get in the way of her living a full life—which even includes coaching three basketball teams!

Dr. Jill’s cancer is aggressive and constantly mutating, and she’s never had a chemotherapy work for more than six months, yet she maintains her belief that negative circumstances like having cancer actually make people appreciate the positive situations even more. “Fighting this cancer is like playing the most challenging chess game, constantly thinking about my next move and researching what’s in the pipeline,” said Dr. Jill. “I’m now on Plan G and I’m glad there are 26 letters of the alphabet so I can get to Plan Z! Each plan buys me more time until that breakthrough comes, which I believe will happen during my lifetime.”

Giving Back

One way she is making sure that a breakthrough happens as soon as possible is through her involvement with the Lustgarten Foundation. To raise awareness and research funding, just weeks after her diagnosis in 2014, Dr. Jill organized the team “God’s Got This” for the Foundation’s 2014 Denver walk. She also organized teams for the 2015 and 2016 Denver walks, attracting more than 100 members and raising nearly $44,000 for research to date. She looks forward to the walks as a way to connect with other patients who are on the same journey and give them hope and encouragement. She tells them that like her, they can fight against their cancer too, and she offers them what she believes are the four most uplifting and empowering words: I believe in you.

Dr. Jill is also having a significant impact in her role as a patient advocate for a Dream Team of researchers who are conducting innovative pancreatic cancer research and who are funded by Stand Up To Cancer, the Lustgarten Foundation, and Cancer Research UK and co-led by her physician, Dr. Von Hoff. This research is focusing on reprogramming pancreatic cancer cells so that they become less aggressive and more sensitive to drugs and anti-cancer immune responses. Dr. Jill participates in a bimonthly Dream Team call and spoke during a recent Stand Up To Cancer meeting in California. “As patient advocates, we need to be the bridge between the different researchers and various foundations funding valuable studies that are making a difference in many lives, like my children’s and mine,” said Dr. Jill. “I’m honored to be a part of this Dream Team, to work with brilliant scientists and researchers who are so passionate, committed and collaborative. The Dream Team’s work gives me hope that new discoveries will be found and will provide me with more time with my family and prevent other families from having to go through this.”

In addition to her work as a walk leader and patient advocate, Dr. Jill is ministering to people through a virtual “survivor partner” network, corresponding with other patients and their families via encouraging texts and notes. Last year, she connected with Jen, a patient in Iowa who was also a mom in her mid-40s, and helped get her to the best possible doctors. She passed away last fall after fighting for 10 months, and Jen’s husband Joe credits Dr. Jill’s support for giving them that time together, instead of the few weeks that her doctors had predicted. This support created a deep bond between the two families.

In fact, when Jill’s sister set up a GoFundMe page last year to finance construction on the home of Hawk’s godparents, who have graciously agreed to raise Hawk, Brooks, and Hope should Dr. Jill succumb to her cancer, Joe was there to help. Joe offered to match all donations to the GoFundMe account up to $29,000 over an 11-day period, building on Dr. Jill’s 29:11 Challenge, which she created to acknowledge all of the kindness that friends, relatives, her former patients and her close-knit community bestowed upon her family and pay it forward. This viral campaign encouraged people to perform 29 random acts of kindness over 11 days. People from every state and 20 countries participated, giving Dr. Jill a renewed sense of purpose and raising enough funding to not only renovate the home, but also to help subsidize the children’s education.

As Dr. Jill reflects on her future, she remains grounded in her faith, grateful for the love of her family, friends and community, optimistic that new treatments and discoveries will change the course of pancreatic cancer, and committed to fighting this disease with a unique combination of fortitude, perseverance and grace. To learn more about Dr. Jill’s inspirational story, please visit her Facebook page.

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of the Lustgarten Foundation’s Progress & Promise newsletter.

After this story was published, Jill lost her battle with pancreatic cancer. We are deeply appreciative that she was willing to share her story with Let’s Win, so that other patients and their families can know about the different treatments that are available.