McCORDSVILLE — Like many 6-year-old boys, Colton Miller has a lot of energy.
He loves sports and playing outside. He wants to be a police officer when he grows up. Those who know him best describe him as outgoing and social.
But for the past year, Colton’s cancer diagnosis has been taking its toll. He hasn’t been able to attend his first grade class at McCordsville Elementary School or play with his friends.
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But beneath the fatigue, his positive attitude has remained. Another thing the cancer couldn’t suppress is his teachers’ desire to include their homebound student as much as possible, such as making him an honorary coach of Mt. Vernon High School’s tennis team during the recent county tournament.
Colton and his mother, Christie Miller, recalled how the diagnosis of T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma came just three days after he turned 6 on June 22, 2018. An X-ray had revealed a large mass on one of Colton’s lungs, and a doctor could not detect any breath sounds from the organ.
Miller said Colton’s gasps for air that had driven them to seek medical care led her to think it might be pneumonia, but never cancer.
She held Colton’s hand as they listened to the doctor explain the diagnosis. Colton was calm, and the look on his face said, “I got this,” Miller remembered.
“Which is how we’ve gotten through this — with a good attitude,” she added.
Colton then spent 11 days in the intensive care unit at Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis.
The treatment that followed was intense, Miller said. It included visits to the hospital once to twice a week, stays for up to five days at a time and blasts of chemotherapy.
Miller said they were in and out of the hospital for the first several months, including any time Colton spiked to a fever over 100.5 degrees, which happened often during the beginning of his treatment process.
“To watch him go through all that treatment was tough,” Miller said, adding he often suffered from side effects like nausea and vomiting.
Family, friends and faith helped them get through it, she continued. Colton’s resilience was a big factor as well.
“He can get sick and two seconds later he’s smiling,” Miller said. “I think that’s how we all got through this. That’s how I got through it — by his positive attitude with it all.”
Colton’s health has improved greatly, and his cancer treatment is currently in what Miller calls its “last maintenance phase,” which includes monthly clinic visits. Those will continue until October 2020. He takes pills ever day, which he’s mastered swallowing by wrapping them in Fruit Roll-Ups.
“It’s just nice to see it all come back because that energy went away for a while,” Miller said.
For the past year, Colton hasn’t been able to venture too far from his home very often, as the chemotherapy left him with a high risk for infection.
“He’s very outgoing, very social, so for him that was the biggest change,” Miller said.
Colton has been doing all of his schoolwork from home. Miller, a social worker, works from home now and helps him with his studies. His kindergarten teacher last year, Amy Nichols, visits once or twice a week for an hour or two to do lessons with him in reading and math.
“It was a whole bunch of changes at once, for sure,” Miller said.
Nichols said she enjoys getting to be Colton’s teacher again and finds his cancer battle inspirational.
“It’s a privilege and an honor to work with him,” she said. “He is definitely my hero.”
Colton works hard during their lessons, Nichols continued.
“He does his best every time,” she said. “I know there are days he doesn’t feel well, but he always pulls it together, and I think it’s awesome that he can do that.”
She credits the positive environment he lives in.
“His attitude and his mom’s attitude have so much to do with his success,” Nichols said.
Colton is well-prepared for the second grade next year, according to Nichols.
“He’s ready,” she said. “He is very, very bright. He was as a kindergartner. He’s very smart and was a hard worker. He does an amazing job.”
Kayla Negley, Colton’s physical education teacher at McCordsville Elementary School, often sends Colton videos of class and his friends.
“She’s been really great trying to keep him connected,” Miller said.
Negley, who is also an assistant tennis coach at Mt. Vernon High School, worked at a tennis camp that Colton attended last year before he was diagnosed with cancer.
At the county tennis tournament, he cheered the players on and chatted with them during changeovers.
Attendees were encouraged to wear green for lymphoma, and Colton got to see several of his friends.
Negley said the power of encouragement motivates her to do things like keep Colton in touch with his PE class and dub him an honorary coach. Support is especially important when someone endures what Colton has been through, she said.
“Everyone needs cheerleaders,” Negley said.
After thinking about his week and a half in the ICU and the arduous treatment that followed, she can’t help but be impressed.
“He’s a strong, tough kid,” Negley said.
A stuffed animal, a monkey named Rex, serves as Colton’s proxy at school. Rex sits in Colton’s seat in class and gets taken to courses elsewhere in the school like physical education and art.
It’s part of the Monkey in My Chair program, which aims to foster a sense of inclusion for students who are homebound due to cancer.
Karen Feder, Colton’s first-grade teacher, said having Rex in class not only allows Colton to feel included but helps his classmates remember who he is as well.
“Because they associate the monkey with Colton and they know he’s missing from school, so when he comes back next year, he was here in spirit with Rex,” she said.
Feder further works to keep Colton involved in the class as much as possible by video-conferencing the class with him using the FaceTime application. Colton will often show up on screen from home to join the class when they read stories together and play a quiz game on their iPads.
“Whenever we talk to him, he is so happy and positive and smiley,” Feder said. “What a blessing to have that type of attitude going through something so difficult.”