Couple offers hope to others through book chronicling their five-year journey
Battling cancer is no walk in the park, as Jeff Hockett, a five-year cancer survivor, can attest to. But sitting on the sideline watching a loved one endure cancer can often be equally as emotional and painful.
"There were many times when my heart ached for him," recalls Jeff's wife, Shauna Hockett, in her recently released book, Blood So Beautiful. "He was in pain, having difficulty functioning. I wish I could have taken the pain for him. I felt helpless." The 200-plus page book chronicles the couple's five-year journey that started with a rare form of blood cancer that eventually led to a stem cell transplant at the Nebraska Medical Center.
"When you have cancer, your journey never really ends," Jeff and Shauna agree as they shared their story. "So I had a hard time deciding when to stop and actually publish the book," explains Shauna. She decided that releasing the book on Sept. 28, 2020, Jeff's fifth anniversary of being cancer-free, would be a perfect tribute to this coveted day.
Writing the book became an invaluable channel for Shauna to release her emotions during the couple's journey. She also wants their story to provide hope to others battling cancer and to help prepare them for the many trials and tribulations their journey may take them.
While Jeff and Shauna's story began when they met in 2006, their faith and perseverance were truly tested on Nov. 7, 2014, when Jeff was diagnosed.
Jeff was just 30 when cancer knocked on his door. He and Shauna had been married for only three and a half years. It was extremely shocking for the young couple who had a whole life in front of them. They had many plans for the future. But this was not one of them.
As the startling news unfolded in front of them, Shauna was by Jeff's side, providing support and comfort. She tried to remain as strong as possible as the words "cancer, chemotherapy and radiation" rolled off the doctor's tongue. She sat quietly as Jeff remained strong, stoic and focused.
It didn't seem real. It was like they were watching themselves in a movie. Inside, Shauna was experiencing a flurry of emotions. She wanted to scream, cry, run away, all at the same time. But she had to keep all of her emotions inside. She had to remain strong for Jeff.
That night, she barely slept a wink. So the next day, she began to write. She found it therapeutic. She often blogged about their journey. Putting her fears and emotions on paper helped her get from one day to the next. And just as importantly, it kept her friends and family informed.
Jeff and Shauna were living in Bloomington, Indiana, when Jeff was diagnosed. As an EMT, Jeff had not been feeling like himself for a few months. The symptoms varied and grew worse by the week: fatigue, a lump in his throat that wouldn't go away, night sweats, mysterious bumps on his head.
A visit to his doctor followed by X-rays and a CT scan revealed Jeff had a large tumor in the middle of his chest, as well as tumors throughout his abdomen and other organs. The cancer was very advanced; he was told – stage 4.
Jeff was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer called T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma. "This type of cancer becomes more difficult to treat the older you are," says Vijaya Bhatt, MD, a Nebraska Medicine hematologist and medical oncologist, who became one of Jeff's primary doctors."
Jeff began standard chemotherapy treatment at a hospital in Indiana. Just a few weeks into treatment, a friend of a friend named Ann, heard of Hockett's diagnosis and strongly encouraged them to seek a second opinion at Nebraska Medicine, which has a nationally recognized lymphoma program that specializes in transplants, research and clinical trials.
Her stepson had gone to Nebraska Medicine to seek treatment but got there too late. Since then, Ann has always felt very strongly about the doctors' expertise at Nebraska Medicine, home of the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center. So much so, she paid for the entire trip for Jeff and Shauna to get a second opinion from Julie Vose, MD, Nebraska Medicine hematologist and medical oncologist, chief of the Division of Hematology/Oncology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Shauna says it was one of many miracles that occurred throughout their journey that she can only attribute to the Lord.
Dr. Vose evaluated Jeff and concurred with the chemotherapy treatment he was receiving in Indiana. Several months later, however, Jeff's condition took a turn for the worse. His body had stopped responding to chemotherapy. The cancer was spreading again. His doctor in Indiana told him nothing more could be done and recommended they begin to discuss end-of-life care.
But Jeff and Shauna were not ready to give up. They were flown via air ambulance from Indianapolis, Indiana, to Omaha with the intent of receiving care under Dr. Vose and her team at the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center.
"When Jeff arrived, he was in bad shape," says Dr. Vose. "The cancer had spread to his brain and throughout his body. When this type of cancer doesn't respond to normal treatment, the patient is less likely to survive."
Dr. Vose said an allogeneic stem cell transplant was Jeff's best hope for survival." Once at the cancer center, Dr. Vose immediately began Jeff on alternative therapies to get the cancer under control so he could become a candidate for the stem cell transplant.
A stem cell donor also needed to be found. Jeff's brother, Ben, was a perfect match – another miracle, says Shauna. (Jeff's sister was a 98% match.) On Sept. 28, 2015, Jeff received the transplant that saved his life. "It was a glorious day," recalls Shauna.
Jeff has experienced several complications since the transplant – a blood clot in his leg and graft vs. host disease. But he is alive and well and more than five years cancer-free. The couple lives on their parents' farm in Bloomington, Indiana. Jeff went back to practicing as an EMT for a year or so, but the job's physical demands became too much for him. Today, he is a woodworker, building custom-made furniture and signs.
"We are so thankful and feel so blessed that we ended up at the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center," says Jeff. "We received amazing care. They helped us get to where we need to be. We just wish Nebraska Medicine was in our hometown."
Doctors at Nebraska Medicine says Jeff's future looks very promising. "With this type of cancer, it is very unusual for it to relapse after five years," says Dr. Vose. "Jeff is very fortunate to be here today, and Shauna was a big part of that. She was always there for Jeff, supporting and encouraging him."
Shauna says she hopes others will be encouraged by their story. While everyone has their own journey, a common thread that she believes is key to each story are hope and faith. "With hope and faith, miracles can happen," she says.
Until she and Jeff embarked on this journey, Shauna says she never understood the healing power of blood as she does now. "With the most humble heart, I reach out to God in thanksgiving that Jeff is next to me, alive and well."