Over a year ago, Officer Colin Toland and his family were told he had less than a year to live due to ependymoma, a type of brain cancer.
This month, however, Ithaca Police Department’s youngest officer celebrated his 10th birthday.
At 10 years old, it is Colin’s eighth year fighting cancer, and his sixth year in Ithaca with his mother Tamiko Toland ’90 and his father Ian Hayward ’04.
“I was talking to Colin about his birthday and what he wanted to do and he said, ‘I want to have an egg hunt,’” said Officer Colin’s Mother, Tamiko Toland.
“We have about 300 plastic eggs around the house, and that’s only my cold stash. So it soon became a matter of collecting more eggs and figuring out what else we could do with them, with some of Colin’s other favorite holidays. So we just decided to celebrate them all.”
The party was held from noon to 5 p.m. on June 18, a few days after Colin’s birthday, June 12. All of his favorite holidays — Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Easter and Valentine’s Day — were incorporated into the theme.
“The Fourth of July was not included,” Toland said with a laugh. “Colin hates the Fourth of July, so we figured, well all right, we have enough as is.”
After 200 people came to Colin’s Hello Kitty-themed party at their home last year, the family decided to move the location of the party this year to Stewart Park to include more members of the community.
“Many of our friends have come together to make this a truly epic gathering with plenty of activities, entertainment, prizes and crafts for children and adults throughout the entire time,” read the event’s Facebook page.
The spirit of community and resiliency have followed Colin in his 10 years as a student, as a cancer patient, and most recently, as a police officer.
Not too long after his treatment at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Colin attended a community barbecue in Ithaca, where he met John Barber, retired Chief of the Ithaca Police Department. At the barbecue, Barber told Colin about the possibility of becoming a police officer. Colin, however, due to his hearing deficit, misunderstood it as a promise to let him join the department immediately.
“Colin was asking the Chief all sorts of questions,” Toland said. “They were both talking and Colin kept asking ‘When can I start?’ He really thought the Chief was offering him a job. It was amazing, actually. You take that ball, and he just ran with it completely.”
The IPD officially swore Colin into the position on September 12, 2016. Since then, he has been doing SWAT training, making visits to the 911 center, and touring other agencies as a member of the IPD, Toland said.
“It’s been great, watching him come back to himself,” Toland said. “He was more introverted when he was so sick. He was flying really low to the ground last year, which was strange because he’s usually so talkative. Now he’s back to talking and he’s engaged. He’s got more road. He keeps getting more road.”
In fact, despite being told his tumor was inoperable and his cancer was untreatable, Colin is now eligible for a checkpoint inhibitor trial that was approved on June 23. He will be looking at infusions every two weeks in NYC, with minimal side effects, according to his official Facebook page.
“He’s a comeback kid,” said Cameron Yates ’18. “It’s been great getting to come back and meet Colin, and watch him come back to his baseline.”
The bond between Colin and Yates formed just over six months ago, and has been strengthened by their shared experiences.
When Yates was four, he was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. During his treatment, the chief of the Fairfield Police heard of his desire to become a police officer and began sending patrol officers to his house.
“My experience with cancer was very different,” Yates said. “I was pretty young, my treatment was straightforward, and I was responding well. My memories from that time aren’t really even about being sick, but getting to be a police officer.”
Like Colin, Yates was given a swearing-in ceremony before the Memorial Day Parade, which he got to participate with the FPD. The current deputy chief of the FPD is involved with Colin’s story and sends him care packages from the police department as well.
“It’s funny, the similarities between us,” Yates said. “Colin and I actually grew up in Connecticut pretty close to each other. It’s strange, I don’t know, I just haven’t heard of anything similar ever happening to anyone else. I enjoyed my time with the police force, but as I got older, I’d ride in the parades, and just kind of stopped. It’s amazing what people did for both of us, but the lengths people go for Colin—it’s all really something special.”
Due to his involvement as an EMT with both Cornell University Emergency Medical Service and Bangs Ambulance, Yates has been able to show Colin an extra dimension of emergency response.
Members of Cornell EMS have paid Colin a visit and have given him a tour of the facility, in addition to sending him care packages.
“It’s kind of cool, getting to be in the reverse position,” Yates said. “Now I’m doing what they did for me in a way. I think I get more out of it than he does sometimes.”
Colin was also able to attend the Cornell University Emergency Medical Service end-of-year banquet as a guest of honor, where he reminded the attendees “to never, ever give up.”
“When he was little, he wanted to be an army guy,” Toland said. “He used to want to be everything. He wanted to be every single profession. But during one of his radiation treatments last year, he started talking about how he wanted to become a police officer. I don’t know if it was related to some of the civil unrest right now or not. But it was something he really wanted to do.”
For Colin, being a police officer is more than just a job.
“I like helping people,” Colin said. “I can’t stop crime, but I like helping people as a police officer.”
Speaking about his favorite parts of the job, Colin mentioned how last December he was able to arrest the Grinch. In a video posted by Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 on Facebook, Colin is shown reading the Grinch his Miranda rights, checking all the boxes, and “taking him downtown.”
“It was a great experience,” Toland said. “The whole department has really embraced it. Colin feels that he does help people when he does this. He’s so into it, and it gives him a sense of purpose.”
In fact, because his experience with IPD was not “one and done,” Colin has also been able to speak at the Badge of Honor Policeman’s Ball, attend a Stop DWI event at the Watkins Glen International raceway, and walk in the Ithaca Festival Parade.
This past year, Colin has been able to return to school on his own volition. He stays in class for as long as he can, and he goes home as soon as he wants to, his parents said.
In addition to attending class, Colin remains active by tutoring students in first grade, an activity that his mother jokes “makes him a man of many jobs.”
“He’s 10, and he’s doing his thing. He’s self-actualized as a person, satisfied to have a career and help people. There are plenty of adults who never really reach that place.”
As for the future, Colin plans on returning to school in September, continuing with the activities he loves, all while undergoing continued treatment for his disease.
“In a lot of ways, he’s still a kid,” Toland said. “He’s very fastidious, going up and down the stairs, moving around a lot, even biking through the hospital. He loves peanut M&Ms and pineapple juice. He’s still Colin.”
Colin’s family intends to continue bridging his experiences with the Ithaca and Cornell communities.
“I think people really enjoy Colin’s spirit, I think it really resonates with people,” Toland said. “And at the end of the day, he’s tough, but it’s not the toughness that you see — it’s the light.”