Left: Colton with his baby brother during treatment. Right: Dr. Nina with Colton today.
When 4-year-old Colton initially developed a rash in June of 2019, his family believed he’d had a reaction to sunscreen. In the days that followed, Colton—an outgoing boy with an infectious personality—didn’t seem himself. He was waking up in agony, his body inflamed, and he suddenly needed a tonsillectomy. On a Sunday afternoon, just days after Colton’s 5th birthday, his pediatrician appeared at the family’s Connecticut home to break the news that would change their lives forever.
Colton had stage IV Burkitt’s lymphoma and leukemia—a rare, fast-growing type of blood cancer—and it was spreading rapidly. Without hesitation, his pediatrician urged the family to head to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
It was there that Colton first met Nina Weichert-Leahey, MD, or Dr. Nina, as she affectionately became known to the family. As part of Colton’s medical team, Dr. Nina helped develop his treatment plan; attended to his labs each morning; and provided the family with education, emotional support, and guidance.
“Her kind and calm demeanor brought us comfort while in the midst of chaos,” says Tara, Colton’s mother.
One morning, Tara sat beside Colton in a hospital bed, rocking his infant brother, while her husband, Jeff, was home with their 2-year-old. She was intently listening to Colton’s doctors, absorbing the enormity of the situation, when Dr. Nina suddenly asked if she could give Tara a hug. “She embraced me and told me I was doing a great job. At the time, I did not know how much I needed that, and I’ll never forget it.”
Due to the aggressive nature of his cancer and the toxicity of the chemotherapy, Colton did not leave the hospital for nearly five months while he fought for his life. In that time, he developed a special bond with Dr. Nina, who always asked about his interests and hobbies, and explained his illness in terms a child could grasp. More than just his doctor, Colton began to see Dr. Nina as an amazing friend; one who just happened to also save kids with cancer.
Left: Colton and his brother, Ryder, peer into a microscope during their visit to the lab. Right: Dr. Nina with Colton and his family during their visit to the lab.
“It has been an honor to care for Colton and be a part of his team,” says Dr. Nina. “He and his family are very close to my heart. I adore him.” Today, Colton is nearly 9 years old and in remission. He is joyful, passionate, witty, and determined. He loves meeting new people, going to the beach, and playing sports—he hopes to one day play baseball for the New York Yankees. He’s proud to be a cancer survivor and is eager to share his experience with others. Despite all he has been through, he is always excited to travel to Boston for appointments, as it means he gets to see Dr. Nina. Recently, she invited Colton’s family to visit the lab of A. Thomas Look, MD, where physician-scientists are using zebrafish to develop cancer therapies.
“After spending time with Dr. Nina, we know that Dana-Farber is finding new treatments that will vastly improve the quality of life for patients,” says Tara. “It gives us so much hope that they are on the cusp of groundbreaking discoveries, bringing us one step closer to not only making treatment more tolerable, but eradicating cancer.”
Witnessing scientific discovery in progress is especially rewarding for Colton’s family, who have raised nearly $60,000 for Dana-Farber and the Jimmy Fund at their annual #CrushItColton fundraising event.
“We are so grateful to those who have given before us, and we are determined to do the same,” says Jeff.
What started as Colton’s request to rent a dunk tank for a day, #CrushItColton has grown to include bounce houses, a food truck, music, raffles, and more. Dr. Nina affirms that the money the family has raised goes a long way when working with such tiny fish. “I love the name of their fundraising campaign, #CrushItColton, because Colton absolutely did!” says Dr. Nina. “The family has been extremely supportive of the Jimmy Fund and my research. They made a lot of things possible in the lab that I couldn’t have done without their support.”
As Colton looks toward a brighter future—for himself and for other kids facing a cancer diagnosis—he reflects on the people at Dana-Farber who helped him through his cancer treatment. When asked what makes his favorite doctor so special, his answer is simple.
“I just love her because she’s Dr. Nina.”
Help support patients like Colton by joining The Dana-Farber Campaign, our ambitious, multi-year fundraising effort to prevent, treat, and defy cancer. The Dana-Farber Campaign will accelerate the Institute’s strategic priorities by supporting revolutionary science, extraordinary care, and exceptional expertise. As a community, we have the power to create a more hopeful, cancer-free future—in Boston and around the world. Together, we can defy cancer at every turn. Learn more about The Dana-Farber Campaign and how you can get involved at DefyCancer.org.