Dr. Jill Pechacek: Pancreatic Cancer Warrior

Written By Debra Gelbart
August 19, 2017

Dr. Jill Pechacek
Diagnosed: September, 2014
Survivor: In Remission

Relentless Optimism

Dr. Jill Pechacek was waiting in line at a Starbucks drive-through in Scottsdale, Arizona recently, 840 miles from her home in suburban Denver. As she eased up to the window, the barista informed her that her order had been paid by the driver in front of her. “The driver said something about ‘29-11’ and random acts of kindness,” the barista explained. “This has been going on all day.”

The Starbucks employee wasn’t aware that the “29:11 campaign” had been invented by Dr. Jill, a pancreatic cancer survivor for whom the Scriptural verse Jeremiah 29:11 is especially inspiring: “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord…‘plans to give you hope and a future.’”

Dr. Jill, trained as a family medicine physician, wanted to imbue “29:11” with even more meaning, and came up with the idea of encouraging people to perform 29 random acts of kindness in 11 days. That powerful prescription for bettering the world has now touched almost every state in the U.S. and 20 countries around the globe.

Life interrupted, But Not Slowed

Her campaign to make life better is emblematic of Dr. Jill’s ebulliently positive outlook, despite facing enough challenges for multiple lifetimes. At 25, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, just before her last semester of medical school. She even turned that into a positive and never missed a day of school.

“That was my first time being a patient with a serious condition,” she said. “What a great perspective to have before graduating as a physician.” She said she didn’t have a doubt in her mind that “I was going to beat this.” She went on to have three children: sons Hawk and Brooks and daughter Hope, who range in age from 15 to 11.

Eight years after the birth of her youngest child Hope, Dr. Jill never thought she’d soon be experiencing another bout of cancer. She was working full-time as a physician, running a medical esthetic clinic, teaching board certification classes in Asia and the U.S., volunteering at her children’s school, coaching all of them in basketball and traveling. In the summer of 2014, she remembers thinking, “I must be okay, because I wouldn’t have the energy to do all this,” even as she worried about a recurrence of cancer.

But in September 2014, pain in her stomach wouldn’t let up. She thought it was either an ulcer or pancreatitis, but received the devastating news that she had stage 4 pancreatic cancer that had metastasized to her liver.

This time it was tougher for her to stay positive. “There’s been more fear and anxiety, because my survival isn’t about just me, it’s about my kids,” she said. “But I keep reminding myself that I am not a statistic.”

Never Giving In

With boundless determination, she traveled to six different cancer-care institutions around the country in search of the optimal treatment, though she was already receiving regular infusions of Folfirinox, a cocktail of chemotherapy drugs. Sometimes, she would complete an infusion shortly before boarding a flight to one of these institutions. Other times, she required I-V fluids during the flight to avoid dehydration. Once, the aide accompanying her stood during the entire three-hour flight except for takeoff and landing to act as a human I-V pole, switching arms mid-flight. “Those were really hard, dark days,” she said, “with ‘doom and gloom’ consults that all estimated I had about six months to live.”

After researching clinical research trials, Dr. Jill found Dr. Daniel Von Hoff, M.D., F.A.C.P., a pioneer in the development of targeted therapies for treatment of cancer at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) in Phoenix and HonorHealth Research Institute in Scottsdale.

“When I first met him, one of the leading cancer researchers in the world, I noticed that he has the kindest face and he looks at you like you’re the only person in the world,” she said. She repeated to him what she had said to other doctors: “I only need 10.” When other doctors heard that, she explained, “they would ask, ’10 months’? I would say, ‘no, 10 years, so I can see all my children graduate from high school.” Dr. Von Hoff, unlike any other doctor she had consulted, “squeezed my hands and said, ‘Dr. Jill, why would you stop at 10 years?’ I knew at that moment that he was exactly the doctor I was looking for.”

She said he is “so collaborative and so passionate about working together to find the best treatment for me,” she said. She flies to Arizona about every eight weeks to be seen by Dr. Von Hoff and by Erkut Borazanci, M.D., a medical oncologist, clinical investigator at HonorHealth Research Institute and medical director of the institute’s early cancer detection program.

She has since learned that she has at least three genetic mutations that may have made her susceptible to cancer. For information on genetic testing, visit cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/genetics/should-i-get-genetic-testing-for-cancer-risk.html.

Life Lessons Shared With Others

What she has gleaned from a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, she said, is that “you can’t hold resentment in your heart. So many amazing things come out of challenging times, and life is all about deepening relationships and all of the new people that God brings into your life.”

She has undergone separate surgeries to have her pancreas removed and two-thirds of her liver removed. Her latest scan in August 2017 showed no evidence of disease, but because of significant side effects from having had chemotherapy every week for almost three years, she isn’t practicing medicine anymore.

Instead, she has become a motivational speaker to remind people of what’s truly important in life: having faith in God and knowing the power of prayer; that “nothing tastes better than life” and each day is a gift; the restorative and healing impact of “being around the people you love and the people who love, support and encourage you”; and the value of investing in your health.

Dr. Jill, 49, knows that her cancer could return, and she’s prepared for that. “I’m not just on Plan B; I’m on Plan H by now,” she says lightheartedly. “I tell my kids it’s a good thing there are 26 letters in the alphabet.”

In the meantime, she will be a speaker for the first time at the 15th Annual Seena Magowitz Golf Classic, a fundraising event held in Boston August 26, 27 and 28. 2017. She feels guided by wisdom from several sources, including Verse 31:25 from the Book of Proverbs that says, “She is clothed with strength and dignity and she laughs without fear of the future.” She remains determined “to do whatever it takes to be here because I’m extremely motivated and confident in my future.” She urges those in her audiences to “let your faith be bigger than your fear” and underscores that “God has a plan for you.”

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