It’s a crisp fall day on the campus of Maranatha Baptist University in Watertown, Wisconsin. Hundreds of students are bustling from building to building, each one probably running on too little sleep and too much coffee. But one nursing student, 22-year-old Caleb Hatchett, is different. He is a stage four cancer survivor.
He’s now a year and a half removed from his cancer journey, but his story is far from over. Caleb’s life has been marked by challenges, those overcome and those yet to be conquered through a hope that arises from his faith in God.
An Unforeseen Path
The pain in Caleb’s right shoulder began in the fall of his sophomore year. At the time, Caleb was just another 19-year-old college student at Maranatha Baptist University. For a while, he ignored the discomfort, but by the spring of 2015, the pain finally sent him to the doctor.
Minutes before seeing the CAT scan results, Caleb turned to his mom and said, “Mom, you don’t think it could be cancer.”
Quickly she answered, “No, no, Caleb. Cancer doesn’t hurt.”
But on April 14, 2015, Caleb’s life as an average college student changed completely. The scan had revealed a mass, the doctor told him, and it was Ewing’s Sarcoma. Bone cancer.
Caleb’s doctor guessed the tumor had started growing in the summer of 2014. Already it had reached the size of a softball. Caleb would have to join the dozens of bald kids at Children’s Hospital in Madison and begin the fight for his life.
Barely weeks after his diagnosis, chemo treatments were already underway. The procedures revealed tumors in both of Caleb’s lungs, six total. The survival rate for stage four Ewing’s Sarcoma is thirty percent. But statistics for Caleb were even bleaker.
Caleb already had type one diabetes, and the combination of these diseases dropped Caleb’s survival rate to eleven percent. He was fighting a serious cancer with nearly no chance of winning.
Through the Valleys
Every day he faced a different challenge to overcome. The combination of chemotherapy, medication, and blood transfusions left him severely nauseated and depressed. Caleb began to understand why people refuse to go through treatment. “If I hadn’t had my family,” he admits, “there would have been points I would have stopped treatment.”
But Caleb wasn’t even halfway through chemo. After chemo, fourteen rounds of high dose radiation still awaited him. During radiation, the doctors discovered more tumors in his neck.
Two times during his treatment, the doctors and nurses didn’t think Caleb would make it. During radiation, he contracted colitis (inflammation of the colon). His colon swelled shut, and the doctors were prepared for it to rupture any minute. If it had burst, Caleb would have died before they could even try to save him.
From a medical standpoint, the colitis should have been fatal. One doctor later said he had never seen a colon that large that hadn’t ruptured. The doctors never did figure out why his colon didn’t burst. Yet Caleb survived.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t his only scare. Shortly after transplant, Caleb contracted mucositis, the painful ulceration of the digestive track. Caleb explains mucositis this way: “Imagine you have a terrible, peeling sunburn starting in your throat and all the way down your digestive tract. Then imagine you have all those gastric juices running through this tract.”
It hurt so badly that Caleb couldn’t even swallow his own saliva. He was internally suffocating. The nurses and doctors thought he would die. But once again, Caleb lived.
Some of the brightest spots in Caleb’s cancer journey were the moments he spent with nurses and other patients. During the times Caleb felt better, he’d join his nurses at the nurse’s station. They treated him like one of them.
“They’re amazing,” Caleb says of his nurses. “Apart from your family, they are the reason you keep fighting. They make you focus on hope. They make you laugh. They make it livable.”
The nurses even let Caleb join them on their rounds to visit the other patients. Caleb says, “We’d play ‘Would you rather?’ or I’d play Xbox with the younger kids. It was fun to brighten up their moments. Those are my best memories in the hospital.”
And though he’s been cancer free since June of 2016, kids fighting cancer are still very close to Caleb’s heart.
Caleb texts and meets up with other cancer survivors on a regular basis. He especially keeps in close contact with a 9-year-old girl named Josie who is still fighting cancer. He has led cancer survivor groups and worked in childhood cancer camps. Eventually, Caleb wants to write a book about his cancer journey to give a voice to those who don’t have one—children with cancer.
Caleb could be spending his life focusing on himself, but he isn’t. He could focus on his chances of relapsing—which are very high. But he isn’t.
During his time in the hospital talking to nurses and other patients, Caleb decided what he wanted to do with his life: pediatric oncology. Today, Caleb is back at Maranatha Baptist University to study nursing. He intends to return to Children’s and work with kids with cancer.
Now a junior, Caleb is overcoming the challenging nursing program at Maranatha. Though his schoolwork is draining, Caleb remains focused on his goal. “The only way I can get by is by knowing this is temporary,” he says. “I’m working towards being back at Children’s and working with kids.”
The Next Steps
Though Caleb’s story is one of overcoming, cancer plays a major role in his future plans.
In the fall of 2016, Caleb met Laura Sheard, another nursing student with type one diabetes. Because of the high chance of relapse, Caleb was wary of falling in love. If his cancer did return, Laura would be left with a broken heart.
A few months into their relationship, Caleb told Laura, “I really don’t think you understand the gravity of the situation.”
But Laura responded, “No, I can’t understand, but if your cancer does come back, God will give me the same grace he gave you to go through it.”
It was then Caleb realized God had brought Laura into his life for the special purpose of taking this journey together. Laura has chosen to face the future alongside Caleb.
She admires the eternal perspective Caleb developed during his cancer journey. “All the other guys I met are focused on temporal,” she says. “His focus is so much greater, on eternal things. He’s encouraged me to be the same way and look to the One who has all our lives planned.”
Though Caleb has been criticized for making plans when the future is so uncertain, he has decided to live as if his cancer is never coming back. And even if it does, he holds a firm faith in what comes after this life.
“I’m not living for this life,” he says. “There is no guarantee that everything is going to be good now even if I beat cancer. You just don’t have any guarantees. My hope is in what comes afterward and in Jesus who died for us to provide a way of salvation.”
Caleb refuses to let fear of the future run his life. “Fear is very powerful word,” he acknowledges, “but hope is just as powerful. And you can choose to look at one or the other.”
As for Caleb, he’s chosen hope.
Amelia Johnson is a junior in the Communication Arts program at MBU. This profile was produced in partial fulfillment of the requirements for MBU’s journalism course.