A Pint-Sized Superhero Fights Pediatric Cancer with Swagger

As a young boy, Colten 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.

This September, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals are highlighting the bravery of kids like Colten during Childhood Cancer Awareness month with our inaugural Be Gold campaign. The initiative is rallying community partners and local businesses to raise $1 million in support of our innovative pediatric cancer research and critical services for kids.

Colten’s cancer battle began in 2015 when, after a month of fevers, anemia, and pain in his leg, he was diagnosed with stage 4 high risk neuroblastoma, a rare and aggressive form of nerve cancer. 

“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 husband Tim personified cancer as an enemy that the mighty Hulken would certainly defeat. When Colten underwent a 10-hour surgery to remove the primary tumor from his kidney, for example, his parents explained it as removing the “bad guy’s base headquarters.” 

Colten went on to spend 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 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 treatment combination approved by the FDA only months prior: immunotherapy with chemotherapy. After one round, his blood counts did not recover enough to undergo the second planned cycle, but his oncologist, Clay Gustafson, MD, decided to check the results.

“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. 

After the second cycle, Colten was cancer-free, but he still had a long way to go: a stem-cell transplant, radiation, more immunotherapy, followed by eight months of isolation at home. The seven-year-old still struggles with iron overload and hypothyroidism, but he enjoys being at home with his family and new kitten.

“It feels like our lives have just begun, and we are definitely making up for lost time,” Michelle says.

Want to help kids like Colten thrive? Learn more about Be Gold and join the campaign on social media with #BeGold4Kids