Caleb Mock talks as if he's being inconvenienced by a simple illness rather than battling a life-threatening disease.
“I am incredibly blessed,” the Effingham County native said. “I’m sick, but it could be a lot worse.”
Mock, 25, was diagnosed in January with stage IV Burkitt’s lymphoma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer of the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system helps the body fight infections.
He immediately began an aggressive regimen of chemotherapy and steroids, alternating between spending a week in the hospital and two weeks at home to rebuild his strength for the next round of treatment. His sixth stay in the hospital will begin the day after Mother’s Day.
Those treatments have helped put his cancer in remission. Mock also credits his “great” doctors, overwhelming support from his family, friends and the community, and his faith.
“Very small parts of me have doubted the outcome of this episode,” he said. “But at the same time, I knew that God had something for me, and I hadn’t accomplished it yet. So I have a lot of work to do.”
Doses of perspective
This time last year, Mock was helping others in their fight against cancer. He participated for the first time in the American Cancer Society’s annual Relay For Life fundraiser.
Mock was working in Jesup as a mechanical engineer for Rayonier, and was part of the company’s leadership team for the Relay in Wayne County. He seemed healthy and was enjoying life, especially the first year of marriage to his wife Jada.
He acknowledges, at that time, he “definitely wouldn’t have thought” he would miss Relay this year — because he would now be the cancer patient.
“I was kind of sad that I couldn’t participate this year, but I figured I’ve got my own thing going on,” Mock said.
Everything seemed fine for Mock until last autumn, when he began feeling a pain in his side. When the pain became worse around the holidays, he could no longer put off a visit to the doctor.
Mock thought he might have diverticulitis or some other digestive ailment. That wasn’t the case, his doctor told him following a series of tests.
“I said, ‘OK, that’s good,’” Mock recalled. “He said, ‘Well, actually, Caleb, we think you have a tumor.’”
Further tests confirmed he had Burkitt’s lymphoma, and Mock said he “started chemo the next day.” By that point, Mock could barely eat because the tumor had grown and was pushing on his stomach, causing intense pain.
“I couldn’t sleep the night before we started chemo — and not just because I was nervous, but because it hurt so bad,” he said.
Mock did research and found that more than half the people with Burkitt’s lymphoma can be cured with intensive chemotherapy. He also received a dose of reality when he shared his diagnosis with a friend who is in medical school.
“She said, ‘Oh, wow, that’s rare,’ and my response was, ‘Yeah, but it’s curable,’” he said. “She said, ‘If you have the money for it.’”
Only about 1,200 people in the U.S. are diagnosed each year with Burkitt’s lymphoma. It is most common in Africa, particularly among children who also have malaria and the Epstein-Barr virus.
“They don’t have access to the type of care I do,” Mock said. “For them, it’s a death sentence. For me, it’s just a the-next-few-months-are-gonna-stink sentence.”
Shows of support
With Mock’s top-notch care come mounting medical bills. As the expenses pile up, his family is receiving help from friends, community members and people they don’t even know.
Last month, Evans Bevill and Bobby Smith organized a fundraising concert. The gospel group The Nelons donated their time to perform on a rainy Friday night at Trinity Baptist Church in Richmond Hill, with all proceeds going to Mock’s care.
“There were a hundred people who drove out in the rain to a church an hour away from their home, just to support me,” he said. “It’s humbling. It means a lot.”
Also, a fund in his name was established at Heritage Bank of the South. So far, a few thousand dollars have been donated.
“It’s helpful from a financial standpoint, but it means more from an emotional standpoint,” Mock said.
His parents Mose and Dale Mock have been by his side throughout his treatment. Mose Mock stepped down in January from his Effingham County Board of Education seat in order to devote his time and energy to his son’s battle with cancer.
“We are so thankful to God and to the great friends and family who have been so supportive,” Mose Mock said. “We couldn’t have done it without them.”
Throughout his illness, Mock’s sense of humor has remained healthy. He demonstrated it as he discussed his “wonderful” wife, while poking fun at himself.
“My wife is just so patient,” he said. “She puts up with me being whiny and loud and angry and bitter and crabby — and that was before I had cancer.”
He credited Jada with being with him “every step of the way.” The couple celebrated their first wedding anniversary last month.
“I think that it was all in God’s timing, that we were supposed to get married right before I had cancer,” he said. “It was supposed to be part of the ride.”
The road ahead
Mock is optimistic that ride has many more miles ahead — even with all the obstacles his lymphoma could present.
“I think that in all likelihood I should be OK, based on how the treatment path has gone,” he said.
His father added: “We pray this week after Mother’s Day is his last week in the hospital.”
At one point, Mock and his doctor were discussing adding radiation to his treatment. However, because his cancer went into remission so quickly, they agreed to skip radiation and its potential long-term side-effects.
“I was like, ‘Heck yeah!’” Mock said.
Of course, challenges still arise from time to time. Just two days ago, he was in the hospital receiving a blood transfusion after his hemoglobin dropped too low.
Following Mock’s hospital stay next week, he will visit doctors for routine check-ups. He wants to return to work as soon as he is able.
His goals also include participating in his second Relay For Life.
“I hope next year,” he said.
Relay For Life
• When: Friday, 7 p.m.-1 a.m.
• Where: Effingham County High School
• About: Proceeds support the American Cancer Society