Shawn Anderson started calling his wife, Jennifer, his "warrior queen" while she was a patient at the Mayo Clinic. He said the nickname really speaks to the strength, the spirit and resolve Jennifer Anderson has demonstrated as she has battled life-threatening conditions over the past five years.
"She really is a warrior," he said. "She's been through hell and back and she still keeps pushing forward."
Jen was diagnosed in February 2009 with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia. She underwent six months of chemotherapy and that put her cancer into remission. But it came back and so began another six months of chemo, which doctors hoped would knock the cancer out.
Two years after her original diagnosis, Jen's doctors recommended that she have a stem cell transplant. That procedure was done at the University of Iowa Hospitals. She remained a patient for eight weeks as she recovered.
She returned home for two months, but then experienced some problems with her teeth. Weakened by the chemotherapy and full body radiation treatments prior to the stem cell transplant, her teeth started to break off. She spent two weeks in the hospital at Ames.
"Since her stem cell transplant, her cancer has been in remission," said Shawn. "However, her body has been trying to reject the transplant ever since."
Jen has what is known as Graft vs. Host Disease. She's been battling the effects of that condition with numerous drugs and chemo pills, all with many unpleasant side effects.
"She's had a lot of ups and downs, and there have been a lot more downs as of late," Shawn said. "It was looking pretty good that first summer, but in February 2012, Jen caught pneumonia."
And since then, she's struggled with breathing and respiratory problems. While she was hospitalized in Iowa City, physicians decided to try a treatment called photopheresis. The treatment involved having a percentage of her body's blood temporarily removed. The white blood cells are separated out and treated with drugs and ultraviolet light. The treated mixture and untreated blood is then combined and put back into the patient. The goal of the procedure is to change the DNA structure of her white blood cells to help fend off the Graft vs. Host Disease. The procedure takes several hours and Jen completed 40 of the treatments, which Shawn said is similar to dialysis. However, the positive results they had hoped for didn't happen and ultimately effected her health.
Jen had a fall while at home and ended up in Van Diest Medical Center where she was hospitalized for three weeks, only to be taken by air ambulance to Rochester for treatment of blood clots in her lungs. She was hospitalized for 80 days in Rochester.
Altogether, she's spent more than nine months of the last two and half years hospitalized. And despite all of the setbacks, pain and treatments, Shawn said Jen has remained optimistic and positive, choosing to fight to regain her health and the normalcy in her life.
"Family and friends, my kids and my dog," are what Jennifer Anderson says she relies on for support. They keep me going."
"You just got to keep pushing yourself and working," said Jen. "Don't give up."
Though her doctors told her to go home and start Hospice care, Shawn said Jen wouldn't have that. The family brought in home care because Jen wants to keep fighting.
Shawn often answers for his wife, but that's not unusual for two people who've been together as long as the Andersons. Together for 21 years, the couple had a whirlwind courtship and married after just three months of dating.
"A buddy and I were in a pickup riding around town and I saw this girl walking," he said, recalling the first time he saw Jen. He offered her a ride home.
"As soon as she got out of the truck, my buddy turned to me and said, 'You're going to marry that girl. And I did," he said. They have two children, Alexis, 20, and Kyle, 17, and a grandchild is on the way.Just after she returned from Rochester, a group of family and friends held a benefit and celebration of Jen's life. The event was held at 7B Ranch on a warm Sunday afternoon. Many of those present wore bright pink "Warrior Queen" T-shirts
"It was a great party," Jen said. "There was a big meal, fireworks, lots of people. It was fun."
Shawn said his company has been very supportive of the time he's had to be away from work to be with Jen. A truck driver for Swine Graphics Enterprises, Shawn said his co-workers and the company have been "just excellent."
Shelly Sjoberg, a co-worker and one of the event organizers, said she and others in the community have been inspired by Jen's courage and Shawn's devotion to his wife.
"Shawn's dedication to his wife and being at her bedside, supporting her and caring for her is a source of inspiration for many. Watching the two of them together and the devoted and deep love they have for each other is heartwarming," she said. "They are a great example of what true love and marriage are all about."
Jen said she's grateful to have Shawn's support as she continues her battle back to health.
"Oh boy, I owe him everything. He's been by my side the whole time," said Jen .
"You don't owe me anything, I've been honored to be by your side," he said.