C-M basketball player's battle with cancer inspires many
Luke Blanock awoke at 3 a.m. on the morning of Monday, Dec. 2. The 16-year-old junior from Canon-McMillan High School had tingling in his legs and could not walk. He crawled out of bed and into the living room, where his sister, Katie, had fallen asleep.
Katie ran upstairs to get their parents, Kurt and Jan. The couple did not know what to do. Luke had been experiencing back pain for the past few weeks, but the Blanocks could not imagine this being related. After debating for a few minutes whether to take their son to the emergency room, Luke's symptoms stopped. He stood up and was able to walk around.
Luke did not know it yet, but he was about to be subjected to the most challenging situation of his young life.
When he awoke later that morning, the symptoms were gone. Luke, who is a forward on the Big Macs boys basketball team, went to school and practiced in the evening. After returning home and getting ready to watch the Monday Night Football game, it happened again. The tingling in his legs returned, accompanied by pain.
Kurt and Jan rushed their son to the Canonsburg General Hospital's emergency room, where doctors diagnosed Luke with a pinched nerve from playing basketball. They recommended the Blanocks follow up with an orthopedist and prepared to discharge him. The doctors began processing the paperwork when Luke's symptoms worsened. The muscles in his legs became extremely tight and he again experienced severe pain. Kurt rushed to grab the doctor, who immediately told the Blanocks that Luke needed an MRI.
It was 10 p.m. when Luke was taken by ambulance to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. As doctors placed Luke in the MRI machine, he could not stop moving because his legs were twitching and the pain was getting worse. The process took three and a half hours until the technician was able to take the images the doctors would need. At 5 a.m., doctors read the MRI and found a mass in the lower portion of Luke's back. Surgery was needed to remove the mass and determine if it is cancerous.
“The day before surgery was awful,” Luke said. “One of the worst days ever because it was all day just waiting there and my legs had that tingling feeling. Then every half hour or so, my legs would get hard as a rock. It hurt so bad. It was like the worst Charlie horse you've ever had. I was really excited for surgery as weird as that sounds. Whatever was in me, I just wanted it out of me, because that was just awful.”
Luke spent the next day experiencing the worst pain he could imagine and because the pain involved the nerves, drugs such as Morphine did not work. Every half-hour, his muscles would again tighten up with a sudden rush of extreme pain.
“We were thinking, what can we do to make him comfortable because you could see the expression on his face changed when one of these episodes was about to start – like, 'please, don't let it happen again,' but there was nothing he could do or we could do. There was nothing anyone could do to help him with that pain.”
On Wednesday, doctors removed the tumor.
Less than 24 hours later, the surgeon notified the Blanocks of the diagnosis: Ewing's Sarcoma.
Luke and his parents cried in the moments following the news, but it did not take long for him to face the diagnosis.
“It was pretty emotional at first, so I was crying, obviously,” Luke said. I was determined. Maybe someday I will make a positive out of this. I don't know. Once I get through this, maybe someday, I can help someone else who is dealing with the same thing or something like that. I just try to think positively all the time.”
The doctors had told Luke he would be released Sunday, Dec. 8 until the family heard back about a series of tests he underwent to determine what type of Ewing's Sarcoma he had – localized or metastatic.
The family was then notified that Luke would be released a day early. When Luke heard the news, he instantly asked his parents if he could go to the Big Macs' basketball game that night against Washington High School. His parents said, “no.”
For the next few hours, as hospital personnel entered Luke's room – including nurses, his surgeon, physical therapist and oncologist – the 16-year-old asked each if he could attend the game. They gave him permission.
As the Big Macs sat in the locker room getting ready for tip-off against the Prexies, Luke walked in and the eyes of his teammates lit up. With a hospital band still strapped around his wrist, tape from the IV on his arm and tape covering the port on his neck inserted for upcoming chemotherapy, he hugged each one of his teammates.
“Jan and I walked him out and when we walked out, the line of cheerleaders was crying,” Kurt said. “Everywhere I looked, people were crying. When we walked out onto the court, and then they announced the rest of the team, then seeing him out there arm and arm when they did the national anthem, that was just so emotional, so powerful that day. I will never forget that.”
Big Macs head coach Rick Bell had the public address announcer include Luke in the starting lineup, and he was escorted onto the court for the national anthem, with his best friend and teammate Alex Hammers, again arm in arm.
“I walked out and I was balling my eyes out,” Luke said. “We walked out onto the court, I went and hugged Coach Bell, hugged Hammers, hugged my girlfriend, and it was just a really special moment, because everyone was there to support me and that is when it really hit me that I had all of that support. I didn't realize it until then that the whole Luke Strong thing was a thing, you know?”
As the student section wore gold supporting Luke with the phrase #LukeStrong on the T-shirt and banners plastered across the gymnasium, Luke received a standing ovation from the fans in the Wash High and Canon-McMillan bleachers, the Big Macs held their recovering teammate up.
“To me, it was bigger than a high school basketball game,” Bell said. “It just occurred at a high school basketball game. I think it was everything that we try to teach kids. When you see something like that as an educator, it doesn't get any better than that.”
The Blanocks waited for the next few days for the results of the second battery of tests that would determine if the cancer had spread. Ewing's Sarcoma is an aggressive form of cancer that commonly spreads to the lungs, spine, lymph nodes and bone marrow. The Blanocks anxiously waited for the test results to be delivered in what they described as “a grueling time.”
“That's the only way to describe it,” Jan said. “You are trying to stay upbeat and positive, because you have gotten some good news, and we just had been waiting for that last test, the most important one. It was awful.”
The news slowly reached the family as the first set of tests came back clean, but the most critical test was to determine if the illness spread into his bone marrow. On Tuesday, Dec. 10, Jan and Kurt Blanock were in their kitchen when the phone rang.
Kurt answered the phone and in mid-conversation with the doctor, pumped his fist into the air. Jan began to cry, and Kurt hung up the phone. The couple could not wait to tell their son the news. Luke was in the downstairs living room, when Kurt and Jan told their son his cancer did not spread.
With a fresh, six-inch incision on his lower back from the surgery, he began to jump up and down while pumping his fist.
What a relief: The cancer did not spread.
“They told me the news, and I was fired up,” Luke said. “They told me stop, you just got back surgery. I don't care. It didn't spread anywhere, I am so happy. I was just really excited about that.”
While the Blanocks prepare for Luke's treatment to begin Dec. 30, which will include rounds of radiation and chemotherapy for the next 10 to 11 months, Canonsburg and surrounding communities have shown their support.
Athletic teams at Canon-McMillan have begun writing #LukeStrong on equipment, the Big Macs' student section has continued the gold-out trend, Robert Morris and its men's basketball team posted a photo on Twitter with players holding a sign, “#LukeStrong.”
“We will get through it,” Jan said. “The outpouring of people, I have to tell you, this community is such a close-knit community. Even strangers, people we don't even know, are sending cards, donations, meals; everything you can imagine. People are really stepping up and helping us get through this.”
The family of Alex Hammers has offered to plan Luke's meals when he undergoes treatment and fundraising efforts began that include Luke Strong shirts and wristbands for sale. On the wristbands, written on one side is #LukeStrong. On the other, the sentence Luke spoke to his parents after receiving the diagnosis.
When the Canon-McMillan boys basketball team visited Section 4-AAAA rival Bethel Park Dec. 13, the Blackhawks' student section wore gold to support Luke. Four days later, when the Big Macs hosted Baldwin, the Highlanders' students did the same thing.
“I was surprised that I got so much support,” Luke said. “It's crazy, really – Robert Morris holding up the Luke Strong sign, Chartiers-Houston, Thomas Jefferson and other schools showing support. I'm just so thankful for all of that support. You can never get too much.”
As Luke prepares for chemotherapy, inner strength has kept him motivated in the early stages of the process. After two years spent watching the Big Macs' varsity basketball team from the bench, his junior year offered a chance for the 16-year-old to receive plenty of playing time for a program he grew up rooting for.
“The fact that I know that I'm going to be all right,” Luke said. “I'm going to get through it. Afterwards, I will be a better person. I will have this to look back on and say it made me stronger.”
Luke visited the doctors Friday to receive his treatment schedule and learn about the process. He will be admitted to Children's Hospital for two days, released for a week and a half, then admitted for five more days. For seven days every month, for the next 10 to 11 months, Luke will be undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments that will deplete his immune system and leave him with little-to-no energy.
The 16-year-old recently received his driver's license and not being able to drive is what he hates the most.
“I don't know what I am getting myself into,” Luke said. “I don't know how to prepare myself. I don't know what foods to eat. I don't know how to prepare myself, because I don't know what I am getting myself into. I want to talk to some people who have gone through it.”
Luke's battle with cancer has affected those closest to him, but his warm, outgoing personality has been a saving grace for all. When Kurt is facing the question of why this would happen to Luke and is feeling discouraged, he goes downstairs to spend time with his son. Kurt said just talking to Luke gives him strength.
“I think he is going into this with an amazing attitude, so I am like Kurt. I get a lot of strength from him,” Jan said. “Again, he is going to have days where he is not as tough, so that is what we are here for. He is amazing.”
The Blanocks began preparing for the upcoming year by researching everything from diets to side effects of chemotherapy. While Luke has daily visitors at the home, his immune system will take a hit through chemotherapy, so the family will be cautious.
“It's kind of like we are gearing up for war,” Kurt said “We are trying to think of every possible thing we can to have him comfortable and to have us close by if he needs anything. In a sense, that is what it is. It's going to be a tough fight, but we are ready.”
For Bell, when long nights of watching film or grading papers begin to wear him down, he thinks of Luke.
“As I have said to a couple of people, Luke is dealing with this cancer, which is obviously very, very serious, better than some adults deal with stuff that isn't even close to being as serious as he is dealing with,” Bell said. “I will just speak for me. He has been an inspiration for me. Think about what Luke is dealing with right now. He has been an unbelievable inspiration, and I know that I am not alone.”
For Luke, his biggest concern is staying active as his treatment begins. While doctors have warned him there will be days that his energy is gone and he will not feel up to physical activity, Luke is determined to shoot a basketball and be the active teenager he has been leading up to this situation.
“If I go through chemo and I can't do that, I can't maintain a positive attitude,” Luke said. “That's a promise. I really want to be able to get up, run around a little bit, go up to the school while the team is practicing and shoot some baskets. If I can do that, that will make me so happy.”
When Luke visited the doctors Dec. 20, he received bad news. They warned him that after chemotherapy and other treatment, he might not be able to play sports again.
The 16-year-old, who has the reputation of being a tough, determined kid, tweeted his response to the news:
“Tell me I might not be able to play sports when chemo is done? We'll see about that Doc. I'll see y'all next winter when I'm playing basketball.”
His fight has begun.