Bob Willcockson and family.

Bob Willcockson’s story of surviving pancreatic cancer is nothing short of remarkable. Previously diagnosed with terminal, Stage 3 pancreatic cancer and given only a few months to live, he’s shattered those odds and eight years later is doing well. As I sat with Bob and Lisa to hear their journey, the couple’s strong teamwork and solid bond is evident and their unbroken sense of humor priceless.


Bob and Lisa married in 1984 and added two girls to their family, Alex and Briana. Alex is currently finishing up her PhD in Biology at the University of Texas. Briana is in Salt Lake City, Utah, working for the Children’s Miracle Network and applying for MBA schools for the Marketing program next fall. Bob and Lisa live in a beautiful home in the heart of Yankton, the house that Bob grew up in. Bob lives a short distance from his job at First Dakota National Bank/Raymond James where he has been since 1993. He is a Vice President of First Dakota Brokerage and an Investment Representative with Raymond James.

A Devastating Discovery

Bob’s journey started to unravel in October of 2009. One Saturdaymorning while he and Lisa were running errands, Lisa looked at Bob and noticed he was jaundice, his skin was turning yellow. They immediately headed to the Emergency Room in Yankton where he underwent a CT scan. After further testing it was discovered that Bob had a tumor wrapped around the superior mesenteric vein; he had pancreatic cancer. The devastating news shocked them as he had no risk factors: no familial history and he wasn’t a consumer of alcohol or tobacco.

Searching for further treatment, they enlisted help from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota and had an appointment scheduled the very next day. During his week’s stay, he saw a team of 8 different doctors who provided him with a straight forward, grim diagnosis. He was inoperable, no treatments would work on him at this point. He was terminal and the prospect of him surviving seven more months until May to see his youngest daughter Brianna graduate from high school was a long shot.

Bob felt disbelief and disappointment. He disbelieved how he got the cancer without having any of the risk factors. Disappointment washed over him that he wouldn’t see the girls grow up. He knew Lisa would be fine but he worried about his daughters having to grow up without their father.

When they were about ready to leave, one of the doctors on that team, Dr. Levy, called them back in to talk. He told Bob about a clinical trial, an experimental treatment, called Phase 1 and spent a substantial amount of time explaining the details to them. The treatment might extend Bob’s life by a couple weeks. Bob hesitated, undecided about whether to take part in the treatment. He thought, “What’s the point?”

He might gain a few more weeks. Was it worth trying?

They liked Dr. Levy, though, and appreciated his disposition and the time that he took explaining the treatment. They also liked the idea that the treatment might be able to slow the tumor’s growth using an unconventional delivery of the medication in one simple and painless procedure. Though not all doctors on Bob’s team agreed that it was the best for Bob, the Willcockson family decided if the treatment was fast and painless, Bob would try it to help contribute to someone else’s fight with this cancer. He had only one condition: the minute Bob got sick from the treatment, he would stop. He didn’t want the treatments to kill him.

Plan Implementation

Prior to the Phase 1 procedure, Bob visited with another medical oncologist to discuss the goal of shrinking the tumor enough to surgically remove it. They determined the best course for radiation and chemotherapy for Bob when he returned to Yankton. The oncologist coordinated the treatments with the Avera Cancer Center so Bob could receive treatment closer to home.

Bob was the 17th of 36 patients to participate in the treatment.

The doctors injected a drug directly into the center of the tumor and one injection on each side of it. Upon returning home, he asked Dr.Michael Peterson, Radiation Oncologist at Avera Cancer Center to start chemotherapy and radiation immediately. Bob had a gut instinct that the medicine wouldn’t stay long in the tumor and he wanted to hit it as hard as he could. Through much discussion between his doctor at Mayo and Dr. Peterson, they decided that Bob would partake in six weeks of radiation and an infusion pump of another drug. Though they knew radiation wouldn’t work, they wanted to assure that everypossible option was attempted.

Shortly before Thanksgiving, Bob had a “port” put in his body where the chemo would be delivered. Throughout the course of Bob’s treatment over the next six weeks, Lisa kept family and friends updated through the Caring Bridge website. The webpage allowed the Willcockson’s to post updates where family, friends and co-workers could log in to Bob’s page to track his progress. Bob continued to work at his job during his treatments, he felt that one of his missions in living out his “final days” was taking care of his hundreds of clients at work. Dr. Peterson, impressed that Bob continued to work, was encouraged by Bob’s continuing good health during the process.

Though Bob did feel side effects from the treatment, he continued to stay busy. He continued to work and wrote a book for Lisa with everything meticulously planned for her after his death.

“When you’re not given any hope, nobody’s going to sit on the pity pot with me. It seemed like we needed to get from point A to point B,”he explains.

In February of 2010, Bob had a CT scan to check the status of the tumor. The family was relieved to find out that the tumor had not shrunk nor grown and the cancer had not spread. Bob was set to begin receiving the drug Gemzar by chemotherapy, in hopes of slowing the cancer growth. Unfortunately, he didn’t tolerate the drug well and he got sick. Falling back on his initial condition about stopping treatment when it made him sick, this chemotherapy session would be his last one.

When Bob started to “feel good again,” he hit a few bumps in the road, first a surgery to repair bilateral hernias and then a procedure to install a stent at the entry of his small intestine due to the tumor laying across it.

A Chance

Seven months had passed since Bob’s diagnosis, seven months of Bob’s life that weren’t predicted to happen. Unbelievably, Bob had beat the odds and lived to see Briana’s high school graduation. He continued to regain his energy and strength over the next few months until his follow-up CT scan at the Mayo Clinic one Tuesday in August.

The doctor delivered fantastic news: the tumor had shrunk by 50% and they could finally perform the Whipple procedure to remove it.

This was a huge achievement, as Bob was told at diagnosis that his chances of surviving to have the Whipple was not even close to being an option. Bob didn’t understand what this meant for him.

“Everybody got it but me,” he reflects. “What good does surgery do? I’m still going to die. I’m terminal.” The family didn’t discuss the results any more that week. That Friday, Bob discussed his results with a client during a phone call. The client suggested that he might have a chance to beat his cancer. He hung up the phone and thought about it. It started to sink in. She was right, he had a chance to win this fight!

Before long, Bob was undergoing surgery to remove the awful monster that had invaded his body.

“We came out of surgery and the surgeon was just ecstatic,” Bob recalls. “(The surgeon) said, ‘You’re an R-zero.’” Bob didn’t understandand had to ask the surgeon what he meant. The surgeon told him,“R-zero means that you have no residual cancer. You don’t have anymetastasis. I’m really confident we got it all.” Bob explained that all participants in the Phase 1 treatment had also received an R-zero result with their surgery. For now, he was in the clear, though the surgeon warned Bob that the cancer would come back at some point.

Six months had passed before Bob started to feel better. In 2012, he hit another detour when they found a cancer spot on the liver, it appeared his cancer had spread. After he visited a radiation oncologistat Mayo who didn’t think anything would work, he sought another opinion from the radiation oncologist in Yankton who wanted to give radiation a try.

Bob explained that it’s not uncommon for doctors to disagree, as long as they cooperate. “It’s up to you to choose your own path of treatment,” he explained to me. They illuminated the spot with radiation, removed it and sent it in for biopsy. Bob was stunned to find out that it wasn’t from the spread (metastases) of pancreatic cancer, it was instead non-small cell squamous, or lung cancer. In the end, he said, it was gone. Good riddance.

Reflecting Back

Bob’s last three scans have turned out to be thankfully uneventful. Because of the discovery of the lung tumor, he now goes for check-ups every 4 months instead of every 6 months as initially scheduled. Bob explained how his journey has changed his perception on many things.

“One of the most interesting things that I have found, it’s not before cancer and after cancer. It’s before the Whipple and after the Whipple.” His diet is now different, he requires about an hour more of sleep per night, he’s lost a bit of strength due to radiation and is thinner now than before the journey started, but he’s just about as healthy as he was before his diagnosis eight years ago.

Wanting to keep others informed, he was always willing to educate others about his journey.

“Cancer used to be shameful, and that you didn’t say that you had cancer and you certainly wouldn’t say what kind,” he says. “We approached and said it. Plus, I owed it to my clients and I owed to the employees that I worked with at the bank. Don’t do any rumors, I’m going to tell you exactly what’s going on.”

Bob feels that his work gave him a purpose during his journey. “What got me mentally through this was work. Talking to my clients. Having a place to go, something to do, people relying on me. That got me better mentally and also physically.”

Lisa explains, “I would never wish for anyone to have cancer, but the people we met and continue to meet is incredible.” She continues, “We have great stories, we honestly do. This journey has been so full of humor and people.”

Throughout the journey, the family never lost their sense of humor. They found ways to laugh during the hardest times and there are things that they still joke about today.They remain thankful to those that prayed for Bob and continue to support him in his recovery. They commended their team of doctors for their teamwork. Lisa explains, “The cooperation that has gone back and forth between the physicians here and the Mayo is really amazing. They were always willing to share information and talk to each other.” They reference the care of Dr. Levy at the Mayo Clinic, Dr. Peterson at Avera Cancer Center, Dr. Mabee, now retired from the Yankton Medical Clinic. Lisa mentions that the Infusion nurses at the Yankton Medical Clinic were spectacular. “They give great care,” she reflects.Looking back on his journey, Bob states, “I think our secret was, we asked a lot of questions. And we asked for alternatives. And then we tried to make an educated guess on what made the most sense.” They probe into the simple answers, replying with ‘how come’ or ‘are you sure’ or ‘if this was your family member, what would you do?”

Lisa explains one thing that comforted them when looking at the possibility of Bob’s death. “If it got to that point, his dad, his mom and my dad in Minneapolis, they’ve all been a part of hospice. So we knew if we got to that point what a blessing hospice is and in particularly Yankton, they’re fabulous, but how that end of life doesn’t have to be frightening and scary. They are looking to make that patient comfortable.”

Through this process, they learned a valuable fact about helping others going through difficult times. Bob smiles, “We learned, we never say, ‘let me know what I can do for you,’ we just do it.” It’s often difficult for people to ask for help, so you just figure out what that person needs help with and you do it. Meals, lawn mowing, housework, cleaning the bathroom, running errands or helping get to appointments, just tell them what you’re going to do and help with what you can.

They suggest to others that when faced with an illness of a large magnitude, understand that you are the one in charge of your own health, your own medical care. You can rely on the doctors for their advice and skill, but you make the decision. If the doctor only gives you only one choice, you have the choice to get a second opinion.

Perfectly HappyBob’s doesn’t have any goals for the future. His reply to my question about his future goals really made me stop and think, and it made sense. “I’m perfectly happy. Why would I do that to myself and be dissatisfied? It just doesn’t occur to me that there is something out there that could make me any happier. I have no dissatisfaction. Every day is a whole lot of fun.” If he lived through his cancer diagnosis, he didn’t strive to travel more. Instead he chose realistic aspirations.

“It was more stuff like, I’m going to get new tires for the car. If I live through this, we’re going to get good tires next time.”

Bob continues to work; he loves his job and doesn’t ever want to retire. This journey has humbled him more and has changed his perspective. “I try to be more patient. Very, very few things bug me. Everything is in perspective. Everything is much smaller than it used to be as far as a challenge,” he states.

When asked how Bob’s journey would be titled, Lisa replies, “One in 100.” These are the odds that they gave him at diagnosis to survive just another two years. After he thinks for a moment, glancing upward, Bob states, “Perseverance. I knew I was terminal, but we chose not to give up.” Bob’s strong will and determination have prevailed in this fight as he rallies far beyond everyone’s expectations.