Local Surfer John Balk fights brain Cancer: surf community gets behind family with a fundraiser
by Eddie Solt
All photos by Ricky Lesser
Lifetime local surfer John Balk kept feeling his right arm lock up at the elbow. He just assumed it was a result of a lifetime of surfing. His arm couldn’t bend for thirty seconds. Was it just over-surfed and overworked?
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The 2001 Mira Costa graduate had been the 1999 South Bay High School Surf League Champion and started Auctiv Clothing while still in high school.
“Auctiv was the brand worn by the area’s best surfers,” said Jamie Meistrell, local surfer and lifetime friend. “It was cool to rep a brand started by someone our own age.”
In the last 15 years, Balk’s been a standout in local surf lineups and traveled and surfed in Indonesia, Australia, Hawaii and the East Coast.
“John is a child of the sea and has more salt in him then blood,“ said surf photographer Ricky Lesser, who has shot John since he was a kid. “He’s a perpetual grom, always more excited about the next sessions to come and embodies the spirit of surfing and the ocean, honest and genuine–I’m grateful to call him my friend.”
Balk’s arm kept acting up. He took his friends’ suggestion and visited a chiropractor. But the symptoms persisted. Balk went in for a MRI of his neck. Nothing showed up. Things would finally come to light at a dinner party with family friends, Dr. Erik Ley, head of the ER Trauma Unit at Cedars-Sinai, and his wife Heidi Ley, a nurse in the same unit.
“John had another arm episode,” said Rikki Balk, John’s wife. “Heidi noticed that John looked like he was having a seizure and so we rushed him right to the hospital.”
He immediately went in for a brain scan. What was discovered was a large tumor. A week later, Dr. Keith Black of Cedars-Sinai reported that the tumor was cancerous. Balk had two options: chemo and radiation therapy that offered no guarantee of getting rid of the cancer and could permanently damage his premotor/motor cortex and affect his ability to talk, or remove the tumor, which would hinder John’s ability to walk.
“John decided on the second option,” Rikki said. “With our children Koa, age 3, and Ruby, 2, John couldn’t stand the thought of not being able to communicate with them.”
On October 8, John went under the knife.
“John woke up a day later in the rehab and had a seizure,” Rikki said. “His right side was flaccid but he could move his thumbs and fingers.”
In the last week, John has gained back his arm movement. Most important, his tumor was diagnosed as stage one.
“If the tumor came out as a stage three or four, John would have only six months to two years live,” she said. “He’s grateful that the doctor said he’s going to live a long life and be able to watch his children grow.”
His biggest hurdle is regaining the ability to walk. Regaining movement in his hips and legs is the biggest obstacle to overcome.
“Although we know walking is not guaranteed, we are very hopeful,” Rikki said.
Due to Balk’s status both in the surf community and throughout the larger South Bay community, support has come from all parts of his life.
“We are so grateful for the support of the South Bay,” she said. “The responses of support on our website TeamJohnBalk.com have been inspiring for John and I.”
Meistrell has organized a fundraiser to help Balk on his journey back to health. He took the initiative after hearing about John and the amount of medical expenses that will be piling up.
The community recovery fundraiser will take place on October 24, from noon to 4 p.m., at the Dive N’ Surf store in Redondo Beach.
“We will be raising money with a silent auction with donations of Tyler Hatzikian’s personal big wave gun from Tyler Surfboards, a photo piece by Ricky Lesser, and many others,” Meistrell said. “Our raffle also includes a lot of donations from other great South Bay businesses.”
Tickets are $10 for entry. For $25, entry includes a Team John Balk hat and t-shirt.
“Moi and Sean from Tomorrow’s Bad Seeds, Kira Lingman and Kevin Sousa will be playing,” Meistrell said. “It’s a great event for all of us to come together, bring awareness about John and send positive vibes.”
Check out TeamJohnBalk.com for John Balk updates.