Smashing Cancer: A Mother’s Perspective


There are moments you cherish as a parent—the birth of your children, their first steps, their first day of school…

For me, there’s one more—the day my 6-year-old son, Colten, stepped up to ring the Victory Bell at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco. That sound was one of the sweetest I’ve ever heard: It signaled his victory in a two-year battle with cancer.

I shudder to think what would have happened if UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals hadn’t been there for Colten. Two years earlier, our cancer journey began after Colten suffered an elevated temperature, anemia, and leg pain that made him walk like an old man. His diagnosis was Stage 4 High Risk Neuroblastoma, a rare form of nerve cancer.

“Dr. Gustafson told us that Colten had gone from 12 cancer locations down to barely one.” –Colten's Mom

Colten was a big fan of the Incredible Hulk, even being dubbed “Hulken” by a friend. He loved to pretend to “Hulk smash!” as he fought imaginary enemies. But this enemy was real, and so was his fear as we arrived at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco that first day.

To help Colten through his first round of chemotherapy in February 2015, we appealed to his Hulken identity and told him that the doctors were giving him “super medicine” that would aid the super Hulk soldiers they found in his blood to fight the evil Neuroblastoma.

That May, Colten underwent surgery to remove the primary tumor from his kidney. We called it the “bad guy’s base headquarters.” After a 10-hour operation, the surgeon came to us and said, “The Hulk is good!”—four words that brought us immense relief.

But the journey wasn’t over. Colten spent a total of 237 days in the hospital, and the doctors, nurses and staff were superheroes themselves every single day. They took care of Colten as though he was their own child.

He became the first UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals patient to receive a treatment combination of immunotherapy with chemo, a procedure that the FDA cleared only a few months earlier. Colten was scheduled for two rounds with a scan afterward to determine their success. But after one cycle, his oncologist, Dr. Clay Gustafson, decided to go ahead and perform the scan, something that had never been done.

On December 18, 2015, Dr. Gustafson walked into our room and, with tears in his eyes, told us that Colten had gone from 12 cancer locations down to barely one. The second cycle was even better; the report came back N.E.D.—No Evidence of Disease.

Two years later, Colten is happy and healthy and back to his Hulk-smashing self. After surviving Colten’s ordeal, my husband Tim and I learned that research into childhood cancer is terribly underfunded. We are committed to making sure there are enough resources for UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals to save more children’s lives, not just from cancer but from all diseases and injuries.

– By Michelle Guerra, Colten's Mom