Jim Pignato And Jill Roethke Swim For A Cause Close To Their Hearts

David Creed •

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When Swim Across America came to the island ten years ago for a 25th anniversary swim, Jill Roethke and Jim Pignato knew they needed to participate. SAA is a nonprofit dedicated to raising money and awareness for cancer research, prevention, and treatment. Swimming had always been close to their hearts and an activity they’d choose over almost anything, but the reason they were swimming hit even closer to home.

Roethke’s husband, Steve, had just been diagnosed with cancer . Pignato’s mother was a cancer survivor, but his father was in the midst of his own battle with colon cancer. He passed away in 2013.

“I saw him have to travel to the Cape for chemotherapy treatments and it was a lot,” Pignato said.

“My husband Steve had just been diagnosed with cancer in late 2011, so we were in the middle of traveling back and forth to Boston,” Roethke said. “The kids were also a lot younger than they are now. All the stars were aligned where swimming was very important to us, Steve was battling cancer, and so we wanted to get involved. We were at a time where now we are dealing with cancer directly and it seemed like the right thing to do.”

In 2013, Pignato and Roethke made the decision to keep SAA on the island. They serve as co-directors and have been the catalysts for this annual event that has raised over $3.4 million for beneficiaries such as Nantucket Cottage Hospital and Palliative and Supportive Care of Nantucket (PASCON).

The event has grown to host more than 400 swimmers annually and these funds allow island cancer patients to receive oncology services at NCH. It will return on Saturday, July 23, with the mission of raising enough funds to continue funding these programs. The goal is set at $500,000 and the organization has raised about 78 percent of that at the time of this writing ($394,061).

“Being able to fund these programs and be able to keep these individuals home as much as possible while they are receiving care is really important,” Pignato said. “When we started back in 2012 there was a nurse practitioner that was spearheading all the oncology pieces at the NCH and this position was a split position between Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. They would be here two or three times per week and the Vineyard two or three times per week.”

One of the biggest changes SAA has been able to bring to Nantucket is funding for a full-time nurse practitioner on Nantucket, which provides patients with a more clear point person who is always readily available when needed.

On a national scale, SAA funding has contributed to four FDA approved life-saving immunotherapy treatments: Yervoy, Opdivo, Tecentriq and Keytruda. SAA supports research with more than 60 scientific grants funded each year.

In June of this year, encouraging news about a clinical trial at Memorial Sloan Kettering was published in The New England Journal of Medicine that showed a 100 percent success rate in treating patients in a phase 2 clinical trial for advanced rectal cancer with dostarlimab, an immunotherapy treatment produced by GlaxoSmithKline. The clinical trial at MSK was funded by early-stage grant funding from SAA.

But the event can be more than just raising money. It is also about coming together as a community, as families, to fight back against a disease that has impacted the lives of so many either directly or indirectly.

Team Roethke is an example of these bonds. They raised $5,000 the first year and have raised over $300,000 total. It is a time for Roethke, along with her husband, sons, and sister-in-law to come together doing what they love.

“It means a lot coming together and having those bonds whether it be family bonds, community bonds, team bonds,” Roethke said. “It is a pretty incredible day where you feel good about what you are doing while doing something that you love. It has been fun watching the boys grow through the program and watching the swim evolve. You are teaching kids to be part of something bigger than themselves or their friends.”

Pignato is proud of the progress the oncology lab has made. He said the seed was planted early for him to become a co-director of SAA.

“I remember when I was a young swimmer growing up here on the island in the mid-90s, SAA was doing a crossing from here to Hyannis as a relay swim with a bunch of Olympians and I remember sitting in at the Community Pool in a clinic that was put on by Olympians through SAA for the local kids,” Pignato said. “That planted the seed for me early on. We had all these big names here and I didn’t realize at the time it would really guide my trajectory to where I am now.”

“Being a swimmer, being a coach (entering his 20th season this winter as the varsity swim coach), it was just such a natural fit to get into this.”

The deadline to register for SAA is tomorrow, July 21, in the evening. You can register or donate by clicking here.

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