2023 COMMENCEMENT SERIES | Colton Herbert’s strength and faith tested through cancer diagnosis

In January 2022, Marquette senior Colton Herbert and his family took a road trip to Florida for a vacation. His dad had just retired, and they had a little more time to spare before heading back home to Cedarburg to settle into the new year. It was Christmas break and Colton was about to begin his last semester at Marquette majoring in civil and environmental engineering. The timing seemed perfect to take a break from the routine.

On the car ride down, Colton noticed a pain in his pelvic area; he dismissed it, thinking he was just sore after the 20-hour car ride. The pain persisted and he couldn’t sleep at night. He paced the hotel floor hoping the discomfort would stop. It didn’t. Colton’s parents, Brian and Dawn, took him to the nearest urgent care clinic where doctors immediately realized he needed to go to an emergency room — quickly.

“They did a CT scan and found a really big mass in my pelvis, and I had no idea. I was so shocked because I never felt anything,” Colton says. “Doctors ended up finding a mass the size of a small cantaloupe.”

Everything changed in that moment. Colton and his family immediately returned to Wisconsin and checked into Froedtert Hospital in Wauwatosa. Over the course of the next few days, he would undergo scan after scan and multiple biopsies to reveal what was causing so much pain and pressure inside his body.

Within the span of a week and a half, he went from a seemingly healthy college senior to being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called desmoplastic small round cell tumors, or DSRCT, a type of soft tissue sarcoma.

Since that February, the 23-year-old has undergone 10 rounds of radiation and over 20 rounds of chemotherapy. Although the radiation shrunk the size of his tumors, he’s still undergoing chemo.

Hope in healing

Colton says he’s leaned on his faith during the most difficult times, and despite the bumps and surprising plot twists in his life, there have also been miracles along the way; like the nurse that performed his biopsies who happened to be a Marquette Nurse — the two shared a mutual acquaintance. Or the nurse who had just finished a 12-hour night shift and stayed late so he could play chess with Colton for two more hours.

“The nurses were some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. I eventually want to go back when I’m through with this and express how thankful I am. And to have them not see me in a state of pain,” Colton says. “They really went out of their way to ensure that I was getting the best care.”

More recently, Colton’s path crossed with that of Marquette University President Michael R. Lovell at a sarcoma patient event. The two both live with rare forms of sarcoma.

Colton and President Lovell say that God is at work, letting them know that He has plan and they are part of it.

“We happened to be at the same event, in the same city, at the same time, from the same university,” President Lovell says.

To this day, President Lovell and Colton text each other and meet up every week to go on walks around campus or just talk about their health experiences.

“During a recent walking meeting, Colton and I stopped in front of the Engineering building. He stated how amazing it was that we both are engineers, have nearly identical forms of rare cancers and are at Marquette together,” President Lovell says. “It got me thinking of what the odds were, with 8 billion people in the world, that he and I would be at the same place and at the same time. I reached out to our Math Department, and they estimate that it is about 1 in a trillion. Based on these odds, I can personally say God has put Colton on my path, just as he put Marquette on Colton’s.”

For Colton, he’s thankful to have someone he can relate to, who has faith in God and has similar values.

“It’s very therapeutic in a way and it’s helpful to keep motivated because it can be hard. I really took for granted how easy life was before,” Colton says.

Living a new normal

All the treatments have not dampened Colton’s brilliant smile, deep passions and joy for life. Anyone who meets him can instantly see it on his face.

Many of his interests today were developed as a young boy. His love for Marquette grew when he attended basketball games as a child, and his excitement for playing trombone began in fifth grade. He’s been part of the pep band at Marquette for over three years; something he had to give up last semester due to treatments.

But this Saturday will mark a milestone that Colton will cherish with his friends and family. He will be graduating with his bachelor’s degree in civil and environmental engineering and will be proudly walking across the stage at Fiserv Forum.

“I waited over a year to just have the chance to come back to school like I did. This was a big learning experience for me to realize how much I wanted to be here. I’m very excited to be able to graduate,” Colton says.

In the fall, he will attend graduate school at Marquette working towards a master’s degree in civil engineering. He is focused on the future and living life to its fullest.

“I’m going through a really difficult challenge, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have the same experiences as everyone else. I think you have to have faith and be strong and it’s hard to say be strong,” Colton says. “You know it will get better and this is just a chapter in your story. One of the strongest quotes that really helped me was from an Adidas ad campaign, quoting Muhammad Ali. I like to think that ‘incurable’ means ‘impossible’ — that’s why I relate to it so much.”

Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing. —Muhammad Ali

‘Colton Herbert’s strength and faith’ is the latest piece in Marquette Today’s Commencement Series. Read more stories of how our graduates are setting off to Be The Difference beyond campus: