“I remember the night Heather came home from meeting Mike for the first time and she was just beaming from ear to ear. Once I met him, I knew why she was always so happy. He was her person”, Kelly Pietryla explains. Kelly grew up with two sisters, Heather and Kathleen. She never knew what it was like to have a brother. Now she considers her sisters’ husbands to be the brothers she never had. When she learned that Heather’s husband, Mike, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, she knew she had to do something to show her support for their battle. Kelly and her sister Kathleen signed on immediately to run with the Project Purple team in the Chicago Marathon.
Mike Falls Ill
Over the week of Thanksgiving in 2015, Mike developed stomach pains. His doctor treated him with medication for ulcers. The family thought nothing of it until right before Christmas. Kelly recalls, “I remember getting a text from Heather saying that she had taken Mike to our local hospital because he was having pain in his back that wouldn’t go away.” Later that day Heather asked the family to gather together at her and Mike’s house. She broke the news to the close-knit family that Mike had a tumor in his pancreas and a second mass on his liver.
Mike and Heather Commit to Fight
Mike and Heather committed to fighting his cancer together with everything they had. “The one thing I remember Heather saying that night was, ‘We are going to fight this. Mike is going to fight this.’ That is exactly what they are doing. Heather is my best friend. She has been the girl that I have looked up to my whole life. When her heart breaks, my heart breaks,” Kelly explains. Mike and Heather have a beautiful one-year-old daughter, Mary Helen, who inspires them to keep up the fight every day.
Heather and Mike met with three different oncologists to confirm the stage IV pancreatic cancer diagnosis and make the best decision on treatment options. “Everyone and anyone, including my sister Kathleen who works at Northwestern University Feingberg School of Medicine, moved mountains to get him to the best doctors,” Kelly says. Ultimately, the couple opted for Mike to receive his care at the University of Chicago. Mike has now been fighting pancreatic cancer for seven months.
While his family was desperately hoping to see drastic improvement, Mike’s last scan revealed that his chemotherapy is no longer working. Mike and Heather continue to be optimistic, however. They pointed out that some of his tumors have shrunk and his liver is fully functional. Kelly adds, “They are currently deciding what their next plan of action is and in each second of the day, they are cherishing the time they have together.”
Kelly Draws Inspiration from Mike
Kelly is in awe of the strength and love that Mike and Heather demonstrate as they wage war together against pancreatic cancer. She says, “Mike is Heather’s fairytale love story guy. The two of them complement one another and make one another so happy. They are the definition of true love.” While many families struggle with in-law issues, Kelly clearly loves and admires her brother-in-law. “Mike is funny, sincere and the most giving person I’ve ever met. Mike is a guy who has the ability to make anyone smile in the room he is in. On the days that he feels like absolute crap, he is still able to crack a joke or smile. Mike is an inspiration to me. Mike is an incredible person. Mike is the reason I get up and run every day.”
Kelly is a third and fourth grade teacher in Schaumburg, Illinois. She has worked in the field for 12 years and loves it. She has been married to her husband, Jeff, for almost five years. The couple has two children: 3-year-old John Patrick and one-year-old Nora. She says, “I met Jeff while living in the city and he has always been my biggest cheerleader for every race.”
Kelly Falls in Love with Running
Kelly started running eleven years ago, but she did not always enjoy the sport. “Growing up, I always disliked running. Running the mile was the day I always wanted my parents to call me in sick! It is funny how much my feelings have changed.” Kelly started running when her roommate convinced her to run a half-marathon. She remembers, “I was hooked. The thrill of the race and crossing the finish line is something that will always stay with me.”
Kelly, Heather and Kathleen have completed a number of races together. Kelly wanted to share the feeling of crossing the finish line with her sisters. She first convinced them to run a half-marathon with her. Then when their aunt died of colon cancer in 2010, she convinced them to run the Chicago Marathon for the American Cancer Society in her honor. She and Heather crossed the finish line holding hands, a memory that neither one of them will ever forget.
Kelly Runs For Mike
After Mike’s diagnosis, Kelly and Heather knew they wanted to run the Chicago Marathon in his honor. She enjoyed her experience running in her aunt’s honor, but she feels that running with Project Purple is even more meaningful for her. “Every time I go out for my runs, I am running for Mike, Heather and Mary Helen. I remind myself that no matter how tired I am or how much my legs hurt, what Mike and Heather have to endure on a daily basis is so much more than 26.2 miles. They are my inspiration each step I take. They are the reason I run.”
Kelly is grateful to have the opportunity to run with Kathleen for Project Purple. “Marathon running is something I love doing. I especially love doing it when I have a purpose. Running to beat pancreatic cancer is no better purpose. If one less family has to go through what I have seen my sister and brother-in-law go through, I will run every day until my legs cannot run anymore.”
Please make a tax-deductible donation to Kelly’s Project Purple fundraiser at the following link: