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Lagrange Park-Boys basketball game: Nazareth vs. Iliana Christian. John Bonk Nazareth steals the ball from Jon Zandstra. | Joe Cyganowski~For Sun-Times Media.
It started with a tattoo.
Nazareth boys basketball coach John N. Bonk knows being a public figure is part of the job.
He runs summer camps for youth players, oversees his coaches and players at the lower levels of his program and must deal with the quirks and personalities that comes with having 17 teenagers on his varsity roster.
It might get complicated when one of those individuals is your son. John R. Bonk is a senior guard and one of the leading scorers for the Roadrunners this season. While his father is the one family member who must deal with the press, John R. Bonk recently revealed a secret that was known to just close friends.
The Bonks’ only son is a cancer survivor.
He was willing to come to terms with it publicly when he got a tattoo on his chest of a purple ribbon. It reads: “Survivor” at the top, with “3-1-01” inscribed below. It is one of two dates that the five members of the Bonk family will never forget.
March 3, 2001, is when the Bonk family heard from an oncologist that young John was cured after five months of chemotherapy, spinal taps, blood and platelet infusions and a seemingly endless amount of tests. Before leaving the hospital, the doctor told John N. and Gina Bonk to, “have the biggest party you have ever had because this should be the happiest day of your lives.”
On Nov. 17, 1998, then 4-year-old John R. Bonk was diagnosed at Hope Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn with Burkitt’s Lymphoma, a rare cancer of the lymphatic system more common in Africa. Bonk’s mother, Gina, said John R. was the first child diagnosed with the cancer at Hope.
John R.’s private battle with cancer became public when he posted a picture of his tattoo on his Facebook page to celebrate his 18th birthday. His story was also aired on Comcast SportsNet Chicago on Dec. 19.
“My dad has a couple of tattoos and my uncles have a lot,” John R. said. “It always interested me. I thought it would be a good idea. It would be a good way to remember and maybe inspire other people.”
Someday he would like to do more for other cancer victims when school and basketball take up less of his time.
“I didn’t want anybody to feel sorry for me,” John R. Bonk said.
During the long days of treatment at Hope Hospital, the Bonks received support from the St. Rita High School community, where Bonk — a St. Rita grad — was coaching at the time after coming over from now-defunct Weber.
“It was a difficult situation,” coach Bonk said. “When the doctor came out of the operating room, he said, ‘Unfortunately, your child has cancer.’ The first thing through my mind was bad thoughts. What are the chances of living? What are the chances of surviving?”
Kristin, 26, one of John R.’s two older sisters, was in sixth grade at the time.
“I didn’t even know kids can have cancer,” Kristin said.
John N. and Gina were told that Burkitt’s victims had a survival rate of 70 percent. Young John’s tumor was in his pelvis and his parents told him he had “germs in his belly.”
Gina remembers when her 4-year-old tried to pacify his parents after more vomiting.
“Why are you guys crying? It’s only the chemo,” he said.
Today, John R. has become more devoted to his faith, according to Gina. He has annual checkups to see if the side effects of chemotherapy have affected his organs. He remembers general feelings about his ordeal, but can’t recall specific events.
“I remember a lot of tough days and tough nights,” John R. said. “I would have a good day and get better and then I would be bad again.”
“Family, friends, neighbors and so many strangers came into our lives and helped us get through the hardest thing we could ever imagine,” Gina said.
During her son’s treatment, Gina joined a support group at Hope for parents with children fighting cancer. One month after young John completed chemotherapy, Gina received a call from a nurse about another child with Burkitt’s, who was admitted to the hospital. Gina met with the boy’s mother the next day for two hours.
“Her son had a relapse and had to have a bone marrow transplant,” Gina said. “He survived. Now he’s 16 years old.”
Through Facebook, Gina has tried to help by connecting with other mothers with children fighting cancer.