Canon-McMillan's Blanock refuses to give up in battle with cancer
By Jason Mackey
Published: Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014, 10:30 p.m.
If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that's a full day. That's a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you're going to have something special. — Jim Valvano
Luke Blanock idolizes Jim Valvano.
Only Blanock's adoration for the former N.C. State men's basketball coach extends far beyond rubber bracelets, the Jimmy V Classic or Valvano's speech from the 1993 ESPYs.
Blanock, like Valvano, has been diagnosed with cancer, and the 16-year-old junior at Canon-McMillan has transformed the local basketball community much the same way Valvano did the NCAA decades ago.
“I get a lot of my inspiration from Jim Valvano,” Blanock said just a few days after starting chemotherapy, “because he's a really inspirational guy.”
Blanock, who watches Valvano's tearjerker of a speech at least once a day and has started reading “The Gifts of Jimmy V: A Coach's Legacy,” was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma in early December.
Ewing's sarcoma is essentially a malignant bone tumor that most frequently affects teenagers or young adults. According to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, there are only about 250 known cases in the United States every year.
Blanock's tumor was on the L3 vertebra in his lower back. Surgery removed the baseball-sized mass, and at least eight months of chemotherapy will follow. Yet Blanock, an energetic player known for his hustle and tenacity on the basketball court, has been anything but intimidated.
Blanock speaks matter-of-factly about battling — and beating — cancer. He's turns defiant on Twitter while referencing how his doctors have said he may never play hoops again. Blanock was even booted from Canon-Mac's bench because he got too worked up during games.
Alex Hammers, Blanock's best friend since kindergarten, knows Blanock as the kid who can't stand being second-best at any activity.
Also the one who stunk at ping-pong, disappeared for a few weeks, then re-emerged as the best ping-pong player within their group of friends.
Blanock, a 6-foot power forward who was supposed to step into a starting role this season, has approached this ordeal as a game against cancer.
And it's one he doesn't plan on losing.
“That's become his mindset,” Hammers said. “Luke's very smart, and he's kind of weird in the sense that, if he picks up something that he's not very good at, he'll spend the next month of his life becoming good at it.
“I'm sure that's kind of what he's doing with beating this. He'll learn how … and then destroy it.”
Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul. — Jim Valvano
Blanock awoke in the middle of the night Dec. 2, his legs numb and uncooperative. A pinched nerve, his parents, Kurt and Jan, figured. Or leftover soreness from his Black Friday shift at American Eagle in Tanger Outlets.
Luke went back to bed and practiced the next day.
But that evening, his legs locked up a second time, and the Blanocks drove to Canonsburg General Hospital. The diagnosis remained the same. Just get some rest, Luke was told. No hoops.
Before leaving the hospital, however, Kurt Blanock saw his son lock up in pain and found a doctor — major problem.
Kurt and Luke split an ambulance to Children's Hospital — Luke asking his dad for fantasy football updates the whole way — where an MRI confirmed some sort of mass, one that had to come out immediately.
Luke's legs kept locking up Tuesday in his sixth-floor room while awaiting surgery, forcing him to endure painful, frightening episodes that lasted between two and 20 minutes.
The surgery was Wednesday, and Thursday the Blanock's learned the mass was cancerous; they later found out it was a localized case of Ewing's.
“He looked up at me — I don't know where the heck this came from — and said, ‘I'm going to make cancer my (expletive).' ” Kurt Blanock remembered. “He usually never swears. I started laughing.
“I said, ‘Yeah, that's right.' You beat this. From that point forward, he's been ready to fight it and ready to get back.”
How do you go from where you are to where you wanna be? And I think you have to have an enthusiasm for life. You have to have a dream, a goal. And you have to be willing to work for it. — Jim Valvano
Luke Blanock had a CT scan, a bone scan and a bone marrow biopsy to determine whether the cancer had spread. But Blanock longed for a fourth activity: attending the Big Macs' game that Saturday against Washington.
After Luke got clearance from his doctors, the Blanocks rushed home, changed and arrived at the gym in time for Luke to walk out on the court to a thunderous ovation when he was announced as an honorary starter.
“To see him walk out there was pretty powerful,” Kurt Blanock said.
Luke Blanock's fight has made its way around the WPIAL. Section rivals Bethel Park and Baldwin have worn Canon-Mac colors. Cheerleaders regularly abandon their own team to cheer for Luke. Seton-La Salle, Thomas Jefferson and others have offered touching tributes, many using the Twitter hashtag #Lukestrong, an idea of Luke's girlfriend, Savannah McCann, and friend Jake Trainor.
Alex Hammers' mother, Lisa, has helped coordinate the support for the Blanocks and fields between five and 10 phone calls a day from folks looking for ways to help.
“The Blanocks have been supportive of our community for years through Little League baseball and basketball and recreational sports,” Lisa Hammers said. “I think they've just touched a lot of families over the years. Everybody wants to be able to provide them with the support now that they need it.”
Even area universities have gotten involved, as the Robert Morris men's basketball team has tweeted a picture in tribute and Pitt's Jamie Dixon and James Robinson offered encouraging words after hosting Luke at a recent game.
Students at Canon-McMillan had a competition to raise the most money for the Blanocks, not only using their own cash but also by selling T-shirts, wristbands and baked goods.
“One of the things I've always said about teenagers is that it's amazing what they can do if we, as the adults, get out of the way and let them,” Canon-McMillan coach Rick Bell said. “As a teacher first, it's been very gratifying to see what people have done.
“What a wonderful life lesson and teachable moment.”
One that undoubtedly would please Valvano.
Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.
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