Sioux City, IA

Colton Barker is the life of the party. A typical 8-year-old, he loves to dance, ride bikes with his older brother, Brady, and play My Little Pony with his little sisters, Kenley and Hannah.

His upbeat and caring demeanor makes Colton who he is, which has been largely influenced by what he’s been through.

In 2009, Colton’s parents, Justin and Stacia, noticed something cloudy in their then 2-year-old son’s right eye. Thinking it might be a worm contracted from their new puppy, they took Colton to his local pediatrician.

“Our doctor had studied at Iowa and had done her residency at Iowa,” says Justin. “She took one look at him and knew exactly what she was looking at.”

The Barkers were referred to University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital, where pediatric eye specialists confirmed that Colton had retinoblastoma, a rare cancer of the retina that mostly affects young children. Justin and Stacia were told that their son’s tumor was progressing so quickly that he had roughly two weeks to live if they didn’t remove his eye.

“You’re obviously shocked by the information,” remembers Justin. “But this world-renowned specialist came into the room and said, ‘Colton’s my child now along with you, and I will make sure that he is OK.’”

Colton’s eye was removed just days later. His tumor was unique, so his UI team consulted with other specialists around the country to determine the best treatment plan. In order to ensure that the cancer hadn’t spread, Colton underwent six months of chemotherapy, which left lasting effects on his bladder, kidneys, and gastrointestinal system.

The Barkers have appreciated the support Colton’s care team has given them.

“The medical team has been 100 percent open the entire time,” says Justin. “They said, ‘you are your child’s advocate. We do our very best every day, but if you think there’s something we should look at, ask us.”

Throughout his young life, Colton has undergone 10 surgeries and has had seven prosthetic eyes so far. Even though he’ll have at least one more surgery in the future to further repair his eye socket, he doesn’t let that keep him down.

“I think he kind of wears it as a badge of honor that he’s strong enough to go through this,” says Justin.

In February 2015, Colton donned a gold graduation cap and gown at UI Dance Marathon to celebrate his five-year cancer-free milestone, and his journey has inspired those around him.

“Colton has taught us that you can take a negative and make it into a positive, and that you can be inspired by it, you can be energized by it, and you can really learn a lot on the road you have taken,” says Justin.

Colton looks up to his doctors and nurses, and he is thankful for what his UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital care team has done for him.

“I would run to them, give them hugs, and hang out with them,” says Colton. “I’d thank them for how much they care about me and how much they help me.”