PANAMA CITY BEACH — Colten White's medical history always has been complicated, he says.
At 8 years old, he was diagnosed with common immune vitamin deficiency and, at 10, he was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis.
Yet, it came as a shock to the Alabama native and part-time Panama City Beach resident when he was diagnosed with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, one of the most common and aggressive types of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Thus began White's almost six-month journey of intense chemotherapy, ending in November 2020 when he was announced as cancer-free. Now, he wants to give back to those who helped him.
White will host a spearfishing tournament next month in Panama City Beach to give back to the hospital that treated him, Children's of Alabama.
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The inaugural "Dive for a Cure" combines White's childhood love of spearfishing and his goal to help find a cure for the aggressive cancer he battled. It's set for July 15-16 at Diver's Den in Panama City Beach, starting with a kickoff dinner at 5:30 p.m. July 15 and ending with a weigh-in at 4 p.m. July 16.
Having spent his summers in Panama City Beach and always wanting to participate in spearfishing tournaments himself, he said he is excited.
"It's great to be able to bring that back for all the local divers who love spearfishing and want to compete and show their skill," White said. "I'm just really thankful that I get to be doing that for such a great cause while doing the thing I love in the place I love."
Getting the diagnosis
It all started the summer before his sophomore year of high school in 2020. As the world practically shut down around him because of the COVID-19 pandemic, White and his family made the trek to their Panama City Beach house to get away.
"For a lot of people, it was a very hard time, but for us, it was kind of fun because we were getting to live at the beach house and do things that we love which we don't normally get to do that time of year because we're at school," White said.
Suddenly having the opportunity to hit the beach and scuba dive, White said things were looking up during such an uncertain time. He grew up spending time at his grandparents' home in Panama City Beach, as well as his family's beach home, and he was excited to get back to a place that meant so much to him.
Then he noticed a lump in his groin that would change everything.
"I went to the doctor about that. They said that it didn't feel like anything, the labs weren't showing anything," White said. "We had a trip planned to the Florida Keys and we went and we came back and it was still there, so we contacted the doctor. It was kind of replayed over again — didn't feel like anything, labs didn't show anything."
The White family sought out several opinions and heard the same thing again.
After meeting with his pediatrician, he had the lump removed and biopsied. His family still was questioned by the surgeon, saying they did not see anything of concern.
"We decided to go ahead and do it to give us peace of mind because we were kind of having growing concern over what this was, surely it would be better by now," White said. "And that's when I was diagnosed with cancer on Aug. 26, 2020."
White remembers the moment he got the dreaded news, sitting with his mother and father when they heard the phone ring. His mother saw it was from the doctor and quickly answered it.
"I remember (my father) asking my mom to put the phone on speaker phone, so we all could listen and as those words came out, 'I had cancer,' I kind of just went numb and kind of blocked everything else out," White said. "Everything I wanted to do in my life kind of started rushing through my head. I didn't know if I was gonna get to have those things."
'I just beat cancer'
The next morning, Colten and his family traveled to Children’s of Alabama in Birmingham to meet oncologist Dr. Ana Xavier and discuss treatment options.
White said Dr. Xavier has been a huge part of his support system.
"She was the biggest blessing I didn't even know I would have. I remember ... sitting in the waiting area and just fiddling with my hands because I was nervous," White recalls. "She met me in the waiting room without me even knowing who she was and just hugged me and told me it's gonna be OK. That was really encouraging to me."
The Whites and Xavier discussed all of the potential treatment plans together. They also made plans for Colten’s scans, which came back revealing that his cancer was stage 4.
"Honestly, I wasn't surprised. I kind of had a feeling that it might be just because of what she was telling me, what the cancer was like," White said. "But that was a little shocking."
With a diagnosis of stage 4, Dr. Xavier thought it best that White undergo intense chemotherapy, which required him to be in and out of the hospital every two to three weeks. During the next six months, he received all five cycles of the critical chemo.
From pain of the severe mouth sores, fatigue and nausea to the emotional weight of losing all his hair at age 15, White said the chemo was draining.
However, he said his support system of his family, youth group, friends and his faith got him through it.
"My family continued to help me get through that and the Lord really was the biggest thing. ... I know that it was happening for a reason and that I just had to trust him and I would write Bible verses on the window that we were allowed to use that looks over the city," White said. "I was hoping that it would give encouragement to other cancer patients that might not have that. That wasn't my only goal but I also wanted it to be a reminder to me every day that I could just look at those verses and have the Lord's promise."
Just a week before Thanksgiving in 2020, the White family finally got the words they had been waiting to hear. Colten had beaten cancer.
"I knew I was gonna hear those words ... I did," White said. "My doctor came in and told me, I was excited. I was like, I just did that, I just beat cancer."
Almost two years later, White remains cancer-free. He still visits Children’s every three months for lab work and monitoring.
Dive for a Cure
The idea for "Dive for a Cure" slowly snowballed after White and his family brainstormed last September for ways to give back during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.
After going back to the drawing board several times, he said the idea came to them when they considered their love of scuba diving.
"That's our family thing and everyone in the community in Hayden (Alabama) knows that we do that because it's so unique," White said. "And in Panama City, even more people do it."
The White family got to work on creating the event by making shirts and partnering with clubs at Colten's high school.
"I spoke to different organizations and kind of promoted the idea. ... We decided to sell like cookie brownies, ribbons, snacks, and we ended up raising close to $3,000," White said. "And then I spoke in front of a big audience at a Friday night football game and a lot of people came to show their support. ... We also did a dedication ceremony after I spoke, for all the childhood cancer survivors or people currently going through cancer at our high school."
The Whites donated the $3,000 to Children's of Alabama for cancer research. White said one of the key drugs that saved his life was rituximab, which was approved for adolescents while he was receiving treatment.
He said his family is good friends with several divers in the Panama City Beach area and they all are excited about the tournament.
"A lot of people say they're gonna participate and it's really encouraging and awesome to see it really taking off and happening," White said.
White and hospital officials already are planning on the tournament returning to PCB as an annual event.
In a full circle moment of getting to donate to the hospital that helped him back to health, he said he is humbled.
"I'm just really grateful that I get to be here to be able to do that. I just never thought it would blow up the way it has," White said. "It's just blows my mind, but I'm really grateful for it."
To sign up and participate in "Dive for a Cure," visit panamacity.org.
This article originally appeared on The News Herald: Teen holding Panama City Beach spearfishing event for cancer research