Trigger Warning: This article includes details about the struggles of pancreatic cancer and the hardships they present on caregivers and patients, as well as discussions about sudden death and grieving. If any of these topics present a traumatic hardship for you, you may want to stop reading now.
Jaclyn Kawka is constantly on the move. As an employment lawyer, a mother of two small children, and a runner, her life can sometimes feel like a marathon. However, she was forced to come to a screeching halt when her mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer back in 2022. Her mother’s short and highly tense battle with this disease left her daughter reeling, and ever since then, Kawka has been trying to find her way back to the starting lines. Today, she is getting ready to run with Project Purple for the 2024 Boston Marathon.
“It’s a noble endeavor…You’re doing something for yourself in a way in that you’re doing the run, you’re doing the race, but you’re also helping people, Kawka said. “That’s something I have to remind myself of. As hard as it is [for me] to fundraise, to ask people for money, just keeping in mind that you are doing this, not for [your]self, but for other people and you might spare someone someday from going through something like this.”
Even though Kawka has had her struggles, she is excited to get out there and fundraise for a cause in hopes of ridding the world of pancreatic cancer.
When it Rains, It Pours
Kawka had encountered pancreatic cancer multiple times before her mother’s diagnosis. Several of her extended family members were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer throughout her teenage years and early adulthood. Each case for Kawka drove home the severity of this disease. So, when her mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Kawka was prepared for a tough fight. However, nothing could have prepared her for her mother’s pancreatic cancer journey.
On May 22, 2022, Kawka’s mother, Linda, wasn’t feeling well. When she was admitted to the ER for her ailments. In the days that followed, the doctors discovered that she had some form of cancer originating in her pancreas and bile ducts. Unfortunately, Linda would never learn her official diagnosis. She passed about a week after this initial hospital visit.
“It was so hard and so scary,” Kawka explains when asked what that week was like for her, “It’s not like she had found this a year in advance…in there were little times we knew she wasn’t feeling well and something was up but she was still taking care of herself and living her life… and then she goes into the hospital and it’s like she fell off a cliff…There was nothing I could do, I was just sitting there helplessly, watching this condition eat her alive.”
The speed and dramatic decline of her mother’s health is something Kawka will never forget. She vividly remembers the fear and frustration she felt at watching her mother’s rapid deterioration.
“She was admitted on a Sunday and she declined so rapidly. I was just there every day, watching, horrified by what I was seeing,” Kawka recalls. “There was nothing I could do.”
Despite her declining health, Linda still hoped to pursue treatment, a decision that Kawka was not convinced was the right move for her mother. However, after a few days in the hospital, Linda was discharged from the hospital and scheduled to return in a few days to get a chemo port and start her specialty oncology appointments. Kawka remembers struggling both mentally and physically with bringing her mother home.
“It was so challenging,” Kawka remembers, “I’m not trained in any sort of care like this. In the hospital, it’s one thing… there are medical professionals there and equipment that is designed for very sick people. So being there was one thing…but it was even harder when they discharged her because she couldn’t be alone…I understood that she wanted to pursue treatment, but she was so weak at [that] point that I was worried the slightest thing would kill her.”
Kawka and her sister managed the best they could, taking turns staying with their mother, but quickly, Linda began to need two people to take care of her throughout the day. Kawka recalls how at this point, her mother could not sleep or eat and was in a constant state of extreme discomfort.
“I was so worried that she was going to fall. She didn’t want to go back to the hospital because she knew she wouldn’t be able to get chemo if she was readmitted. So, I was just so worried that she was going to fall and my only option would be to call 911 and have her sent back to the hospital,” said Kawka. “I was afraid she was going to die at home without any resources because we didn’t have hospice; there was no referral for that. It was just us, on our own. There was no one to call.”
After struggling through those three days, Kawka and her mother went back to the hospital on May 31st for her chemo port appointment. It was then that Kawka’s worst fears came true. Her mother was no longer strong enough to withstand the procedure and was readmitted to the hospital. She died three days later on June 3, 2022, the day that she would have gone to her first specialty oncology appointment. Her pancreatic cancer journey lasted just nine days.
Making Sense of the Storm
Kawka is still trying to process her mother’s rapid decline after her diagnosis. The ferocity and suddenness with which this disease manifested in her mother is something that she struggles to cope with every day. It doesn’t help that she has many lingering questions about her mother’s diagnosis that will most likely never be answered.
“I have issues with how the doctors handled things with her,” Kawka explains, “They should have looked at the whole picture and said ‘This may be a patient who is better suited for a hospice referral.’ I wish she had been discharged to hospice care and made comfortable at home… It was pretty clear to me that she was already dying and I just couldn’t understand why they couldn’t see that.”
Kawka wishes she could have been more involved in the discussions about her mother’s care plan. She feels as if what made her mother’s diagnosis so challenging was the feelings of helplessness that came from the lack of communication she had with her mother’s doctors.
“I wouldn’t see a doctor. They would come in and do their rounds in the morning before visiting hours would start,” explained Kawka. “I didn’t have any chances to talk to them or ask questions, to be a part of her care plan or raise any of my concerns…I felt very much left in the dark.”
Most of all, she regrets that her mother never truly got to make peace with her life or connect with people before she passed.
“She didn’t get to say goodbye to anybody,” Kawka remembers. “By the time it was clear that this was the end, she was already not really in a conscious state of speaking or having conversations. I didn’t realize when I left on Wednesday that she would no longer be lucid on Thursday. And obviously, she didn’t know that either.”
Kawka hopes that no one else will have to go through the same experiences she has. It has been a challenge she has faced every day since her mother’s passing. Slowly, she is taking time to acknowledge her grief. Amidst her busy schedule, Kawka has made time every day to process her mother’s cancer journey during her morning runs.
“I find that, because I’m so busy, it’s the time that I have to actually cope with what happened,” Kawka said about running, “and it’s part of the time I have to grieve and process everything, which my mind is still trying to do. And I feel like it’s a way that I connect with her even though she’s gone. She was so actively involved in all my road races that whenever I run a race, I’m looking for her.”
Now, Kawka is hoping to use her running as not only a way to cope with her loss but to support others like her mother who are struggling with pancreatic cancer. In the process of helping others, she hopes that part of her own hurt will be healed.
Taking the Rainbows with the Rain
Linda was always so supportive of her daughter and her ambitions. When Kawka got into running in 2014, her mother was right there at every race, cheering her daughter on. She was always there to celebrate her daughter’s success with her after she crossed the finish line.
“My mother was a big part of [running] for me. My mom came to almost all of my races; she would at least come for the finish,” said Kawka. “She would watch me finish and we would go out to breakfast afterward.”
As an asthmatic, running didn’t come easy for Kawka. She had always considered running to be an off-limits exercise, but after being inspired by other runners she met at an exercise class, she decided to test the sport out at her own pace.
“One day, I went out and I went really really slow and I didn’t have an asthma attack, and so I was like ‘Oh, maybe this can be done if I go really really really slow.’ I just went from there and started to build up.”
Though Kawka kept up with her running for most of her early adulthood, she had taken a break from the sport around the time of her mother’s diagnosis. Now that she is getting back into the sport, Kawka misses seeing her mother on the sidelines at her races. When she ran the Chicago marathon last year, she knew that her mother was still there, cheering her on in spirit.
Kawka got into the marathon through the lottery last October. This race had been one she’d planned on doing several times in the past few years, so when she was finally able to go in 2023, Kawka was on edge. On her journey to Illinois, she remembers being in a constant state of nervousness, trying to make sure she and her family got to their destination without issue. When she did finally get a chance to take a breath, she remembers being overpowered by the sense that her mother was still ready to cheer her daughter on, even if only in spirit.
“Once we finally got to the hotel, I was like, ‘Okay, we’re here, we made it,’ and I opened the shade on the window to take a look at where we were, and a minute after I pulled up the shade this huge rainbow appeared in the sky. It ended up being a double rainbow. It was just like, ‘You made it, you’re here,’ and I just saw it as her way of reassuring me that it’s all okay.”
During the race, Kawka remembers being hit by so many different emotions surrounding her mother’s passing. She had been set to run the marathon with her husband in 2022, and had booked rooms in both her and her mother’s name, thinking that, “my mother always comes to my races.”
“I remember as I was sitting there, waiting, I was definitely tearing up, and feeling very sad that she wasn’t there,” said Kawka, “Going back and canceling the room I reserved in her name… was really hard, emotionally. Here I was in April, booking a hotel room for her, and she was gone less than two months later. So that’s all in my head as I’m getting ready to run Chicago in 2023.”
Running the race a year later, Kawka found herself going back to her mother’s memory. Listening to a playlist of her mother’s favorite music, Kawka felt that her mother was there with her, helping her push through the more difficult parts of the race.
“For the first time, I [realized that] I’m on my own now, but she’s still showing me that she’s here,” said Kawka.
Back to Boston
In 2024, Kawka has set her sights on a new goal: running the Boston Marathon with Project Purple. She knows that this race will not just be a physical challenge, but a mental and emotional one as well.
“After I ran Boston last time, I said, ‘I’m never doing that again, I’m never asking people for money again. It was just so hard to fundraise, but with my mindset now, I don’t care, I’ll ask a million people,” said Kawka, “It’s not for me. It’s for other people. I will continue to ask as long as it takes. I’m sure it’s going to be an extremely emotional day in April, but it will be so worth it.”
Before the charity partners were announced, Kawka was already considering running Boston again. She previously ran the marathon in 2016 to raise funds in honor of a distant relative. Now eight years later, she decided to go back to Boston and run the race once more, this time for her mother.
“When you’re dealing with what I went through, so much of the difficulty was that there was nothing I could do, I was just sitting there, helpless, watching this happen,” said Kawka. “And ever since I’ve been trying to find something I can do.”
When Kawka heard that Project Purple had become a charity partner with the Boston Marathon, she took the opportunity to sign up with the organization, happy to find a community-oriented charity that champions a cause so close to her heart.
“I wanted something specific to this type of cancer because it is so silent and deadly, and it was such a horrific experience [for me],” said Kawka. “This particular type of cancer needs funding, needs research, needs a lot of support. I saw that Project Purple had been at the Boston Marathon before… So I told myself that if they come back and they’re part of the Boston charity program again, I will do it. And then I looked in September and sure enough, there you all were, and I was like, ‘well I guess that’s my sign that I’m doing Boston again.’”
Today, Kawka is doing everything she can to help others who are battling this disease. Recently, an acquaintance’s wife was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and she has been there to lend a hand when needed. By reaching out to others and running this marathon, Kawka is finally getting to do what she couldn’t for her mother: help.
“Having somebody to listen and understand a little bit about what they’re going through can be helpful,” said Kawka, “I offered to be a sounding board, just to listen.”
With so much motivating her to continue to train and push forward, Kawka is ready to take on this next challenge. If you are interested in supporting Jaclyn on her journey to Boston, please click here. If you are interested in joining the Project Purple running community, please click here for more information about our upcoming races. Thank you so much Jaclyn– we can’t wait to see you cross that finish line in Boston!