Mighty Cancer Warrior
“Hopefully the day will come when children no longer have to fight these terrible wars and everyone will smash cancer.”
— Michelle, Colten’s Mom
As a young boy, Colten Guerra alternated between painful shyness and superhero swagger. A fan of the Incredible Hulk, he would attack imaginary enemies, swinging his tiny fists and shouting, “Hulk smash!”
Colten’s active imagination and fighting spirit served him well and earned him the nickname “Hulken” when he battled cancer at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco.
After a month of fevers, anemia, and pain in his leg, 4-year-old Colten was diagnosed in 2015 with stage 4 high-risk neuroblastoma, a rare and aggressive form of nerve cancer. As is typical with the disease, symptoms didn’t appear until the cancer had already spread throughout his body.
“From the beginning, we realized that the best path forward would be to appeal to the ‘strong warrior’ that had always been such a big part of Colten’s personality,” says his mother, Michelle.
Michelle and her husband, Tim, personified cancer as an enemy that the mighty Hulken would certainly defeat because the doctors tested his blood and found “super Hulk soldiers” inside him. At that moment, Colten was no longer scared and instead felt invincible.
Likewise, when Colten underwent a 10-hour surgery to remove the primary tumor from his kidney, his parents explained it as removing the “bad guy’s base headquarters.” A tube that supplied nutrition through his nose became his “super tube,” and chemo was dubbed “super medicine.”
Following his diagnosis, Colten spent more than 240 nights in the hospital over the next two years. He lived up to his warrior persona, walking the halls dressed as Yoda and challenging staff members to thumb wars and breakdancing battles.
“The medical and support staff were completely charmed by his antics,” Michelle says. “We’ll be forever grateful for everyone at the hospital who went to extraordinary lengths to help our son.”
Colten was the first UCSF patient to receive a combination treatment − immunotherapy with chemotherapy − approved by the FDA only months earlier.
“I’ll never forget when Dr. Gustafson walked into our room, and with tears in his eyes, delivered the joyful news that Colten had gone from 12 cancer locations to barely one,” Michelle says.
A few weeks later, after completing a second round of treatment, Colten was declared cancer-free. But, he still had a long way to go: a stem cell transplant, radiation, and more immunotherapy, followed by eight months of isolation at home.
The 7-year-old still battles iron overload and hypothyroidism, but he enjoys being at home with his family and new kitten and loves swimming and karate. Colten recently began attending school full-time for the first time.
“It feels like our lives have just begun, and we are definitely making up for lost time,” Michelle says.
Thankful for Colten’s triumph in battle, Michelle is now doing her part to combat his enemy. “I’ve committed myself to fighting to get resources for research into childhood cancer, which is terribly underfunded,” Michelle says. “Hopefully the day will come when children no longer have to fight these terrible wars and everyone will smash cancer.”