When asked to describe Tom Cocking, people mention his steady, unassuming character or his friendly yet no-nonsense demeanor. He was many things to the people in his life — a loving husband, a devoted provider and caring father, and a reliable friend and neighbor.
Although Tom passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2016, many will continue to understand his legacy through the Cocking Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund, founded by his wife, Kathy Cocking, to help advance research and treatment of the disease at UF Health in his memory.
A Wisconsin native, Tom met Kathy in 1969. They married the following year, settled in Milwaukee, where Kathy began her nursing career, and had two children — Joshua and Gina. Tom worked a delivery route for a local baked goods company but also became a keen student of the stock market, learning its intricacies and studying trends, allowing him to build his investments and add to his family’s savings.
In 1993, after working 27 years as a nurse at St. Mary’s Daughters of Charity Hospital, Kathy accepted a job at UF Health, which brought the family to Gainesville. The Cockings fell in love with Florida, frequently visiting the Disney parks and spending weekends at Crescent Beach. At this point, Tom devoted most of his time to managing the family’s investments and ensuring Kathy was free to focus on building her nursing career.
“He did everything. He took care of the pool, the house, the cars, laundry, cooking. Our life became that kind of partnership.”—Kathy Cocking
After 19 years at UF Health, Kathy retired in 2012, and the Cockings were ready to start their well-earned retirement. However, within months, Tom experienced severe abdominal pain and went to UF Health for testing. The diagnosis came nearly two weeks later: pancreatic cancer.
Developing a plan for treating Tom’s cancer was a multidisciplinary effort, requiring the expertise of radiation oncologists, gastroenterologists, medical oncologists and surgeons. Thomas George, M.D., director of the GI oncology program at UF Health, was Tom’s designated medical oncologist, and he describes the innovative and aggressive course of treatment his team designed.
Surgeons worked to remove the shrunken tumor. Although his desire was to be up and walking right away, Tom spent a week in ICU and an additional two weeks in the hospital before being released. Once home, he started six weeks of radiation therapy, and with Kathy by his side, he pushed himself to stay mobile and progress in his healing. Within a few months, even with a continuous drip attached, the Cockings revisited their favorite family spot: Disney World.
Tom continued to do well into 2014, responding to treatment and visiting George’s clinic almost weekly, when a small spot was discovered on his liver during a routine CT scan. Tom was started on a round of chemotherapy, as well as a research drug that showed promise. Kathy recalled that, by this point, her husband trusted George implicitly.
“With my husband, Dr. George really had to prove himself,” she said. “Just because someone was a doctor or a lawyer, that didn’t matter to my Tom. Even if he had to wait in that office sometimes for his appointment, he never complained because he knew that once he got in the exam room, Dr. George was going to make him as comfortable as possible. He wanted to try anything Dr. George would suggest.”
Tom participated in multiple trials while under George’s care, which Kathy believes contributed to his improved prognosis. She shared that he was referred to as the “poster child” by George’s team because not many people were living four more years with a diagnosis like his.
One challenge Tom and many other pancreatic cancer patients face is the cancer’s effect on the pancreas’ ability to digest food. This, combined with the loss of appetite that many patients experience, means they don’t absorb the necessary nutrients, further accelerating a patient’s physical decline.
One of the reasons Tom responded to treatment was the use of pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT), which replaces enzymes that the pancreas would normally make, allowing someone to digest food by breaking down carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Although an integral part of Tom’s positive response to treatment, the medication can be cost-prohibitive for many patients.
“Tom became quite insightful during this phase of his treatment,” George explained. Other patients were at various points in their treatment or had different means. Tom started to recognize that, despite them all having cancer, his situation was unique, perhaps because he had more resources than some other patients. He outlived a number of patients in the clinic who had the same diagnosis. That started to wear on him a bit, and I think it gave him some desire to try to do something for patients who weren’t as fortunate as he was.”
Eventually, Tom’s cancer did progress, exacerbated by complications from his pancreatic surgery. Facing the reality that the treatment would not rid him of his cancer, Tom decided to focus on spending quality time with his family.
Thankful for the “extra years” George afforded her husband, Kathy created the Cocking Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund at UF Health after his passing.
“I believe in what I’m contributing. My contribution is because of Dr. George. He showed true dedication to treating my husband and this disease.”—Kathy Cocking
Motivated by Tom’s wish to help less fortunate patients and aware of the high cost of PERT, Kathy spoke with George about using the fund to help cover the medication’s cost for those who could not afford it. To date, there have been “more than a dozen” pancreatic cancer patients who’ve benefited from PERT thanks to the generosity of the Cockings. The fund also supports George’s research on early detection of pancreatic cancer and the study of the digestive microbiome in search of early cancer indicators.
You can help support pancreatic cancer patients and research.