'We can't even begin to thank everyone enough': Hoops for Alex event to take place for PBL seventh-grader Alex Jones

PAXTON -- One of the memorable scenes from the 1993 movie Rudy was when players on Notre Dame's football team left their jersey on coach Dan Devine's desk, asking that Rudy dress in their place for the final home game.
 
"This is for Rudy, coach," one of the players said.
 
Alex Jones, son of Abby (Younker) Balk, Jesse Balk, and Aaron and Marcy Jones, is a seventh-grader at Paxton-Buckley-Loda and is the manager for the seventh- and eighth-grade boys basketball teams at the school.  
 
On Jan. 11, 2018, an event called Hoops for Alex is being hosted by students, coaches, teachers and staff at the school during the basketball games against Rantoul Eater Junior High School.
 
***
In December of 2015, Alex Jones began complaining of his back hurting. 
 
"At the time we weren't too concerned as we thought maybe he had slept wrong or, being 10 years old, he was experiencing growing pains," said Abby Balk. 
 
When he went back to school after winter break, Jones got hit in the back one day at recess. He called Abby from school and said his back hurt really bad. 
 
Abby and Alex went to Convenient Care, where Alex was diagnosed as "having anywhere from a pulled muscle to an enlarged heart," Abby said. 
 
Abby and Alex went back and forth to the doctor several times during the next two weeks. 
 
"He would wake up in the middle of the night screaming in pain," Abby said. "We took two trips to the emergency room with no answers. Eventually, his left side went numb and he developed a very awkward walk. We went back to the emergency room where the doctor suggested that he was faking, and we returned home with no answers." 
 
The next day -- Jan. 15, 2016 -- Abby was able to get Alex to see his pediatrician, who ordered blood work and watched Alex as he and Abby started walking off to the lab.
 
"She called us back and said she felt something neurological was going on and wanted Alex to see a neurologist," Abby said. 
 
Abby and Alex were able to see a neurologist that same day. By that evening, an MRI was done, and it was determined that Alex had a tumor inside his spinal cord and he needed to be transferred to a children's hospital. 
 
“It was kind of scary," Alex Jones said.
 
He was transported by ambulance that night to the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago.
 
"At the hospital, they did testing of their own and gave Alex steroids that helped to alleviate the pressure on his spinal cord so that the numbness went away, and he was able to walk fairly normal again until surgery," Abby said. 
 
Alex had surgery the following Tuesday -- Jan. 19 -- to remove the tumor. "Surgery went well," Abby said, and Alex was able to come home on Friday, Jan. 22. 
 
Abby and Alex got the biopsy results several days later. The doctors called it Pilomyxoid Astrocytoma. 
 
"On a scale of 1-4, it was considered grade two and non-cancerous," Abby said. "At that time, we were told there was a chance that the tumor could grow back and if it did they would consider more surgery or chemotherapy. Also, even though the tumor was in his spinal cord, it was considered a brain tumor since the spinal cord is a part of the central nervous system."
 
Alex had to do physical therapy three times a week for several weeks. He returned to Lurie in February for his first post-surgery checkup.
 
"That went well," Abby said. 
 
At that time, doctors scheduled Alex for new MRI's and X-rays for that May. 
 
"After this, everything looked good and he was cleared to enjoy being a kid again," Abby said.
 
***
Alex does not have any physical restrictions other than being unable to play tackle football or any high-impact sport again, but is cleared to play basketball.
 
"This is a chronic disease that will require MRI's and X-rays for the rest of his life," Abby said. 
 
It was discovered last February that Alex has scoliosis which the doctors think could have resulted as a part of his initial surgery so Alex had to have some additional physical therapy at that time but is not currently needing more."
 
Alex has had checkups and MRI's every three months. 
 
"Last November, the doctors told us that they were watching something but weren't quite sure what it was," Abby said. "Unfortunately, when we returned to Luries in August for his next set of MRI's and X-rays, the results were not what we were hoping for." 
 
The area of previous concern had grown and a second tumor had also formed. 
 
"Both are thought to be the same type of tumor as before and are within the spinal cord making it risky to perform another surgery," Abby said. "That is when his surgeon and oncologist felt we needed to treat the tumors with chemotherapy.
 
Alex had a port surgically installed that administers the chemotherapy a few weeks later. He has to have chemo every week for one year. 
 
"We were told that the goal of the chemo is to stop the growth of the tumors," Abby said. "He just had his first three month checkup since beginning chemo in September, and it appears it is doing its job as the tumors have not grown since his last MRI." 
 
Alex finished his first 10 weeks of chemo and got a two-week break around Thanksgiving. 
 
"He is now starting his second phase of the treatment, where they will be administering it for four weeks, and then he gets a two-week break," Abby said. "At this time we will continue with the four weeks of treatment and a two-week break until his year is up unless at some point they decide another course of action is needed. As far as long-term results, we really do not know what to expect."   
 
Alex has had multiple appointments at Lurie Children's hospital since he was first diagnosed, but he and Abby currently go once a week for his treatment, and then every three months for MRI's and X-Rays and four months for the scoliosis.  
 
"It's very difficult to put into words how we have all felt over the past almost two years," Abby said. "When we first found out about the original tumor, it was a nightmare. It's something you never think will happen to your child. It still seems like a bad dream most of the time, but it is reality and we just have to make the best of it. We do our best to stay positive and pray for positive reports at each visit. The doctors have a plan that is currently working, so it is just a part of our routine now."
 
Alex and Abby found out last week on Dec. 5 that both tumors are still there, but have not grown over the last three months.
 
"The chemo is currently doing what his doctors hoped," Abby said.
 
“I feel pretty good," Alex Jones added.
 
***
Despite his condition, Alex Jones earned a spot on the Mahomet Mavericks a travel baseball team, and plans to play once the season starts.
 
“I feel perfectly fine when I'm playing in my practices right now, so I think I'll be able to play," Alex Jones said.
 
High-impact sports such as football are off limits for Jones.
 
After playing for the PBL Youth Football teams in previous years, he was invited back on the team as an honorary captain. For the seventh- and eighth-grade boys basketball teams, he keeps stats for every game and helps out with practices as their team manager.
 
“It means a lot. It's fun," Alex Jones said. “I like just being out with the team and all my friends. I definitely want to play, but it's nice that the team wants me to be there and watch them."
 
Like Rudy, a teammate sacrificing his jersey might result in Alex Jones having an opportunity to play.
 
Griffin Johnson, also a seventh-grader, went to Stacy Johnson, PBL Junior High School's guidance counselor, and talked with her about wanting to give Alex his jersey for one of the basketball games this season.  
 
“I thought it was a nice thing to do -- just to give him a chance," Griffin Johnson said. “(I've known him) since we were little. I knew he wanted to play. I asked him, 'Do you feel like you want to play,' and he said, 'Yes.'”
 
Alex said he had a preference if he should have the opportunity to play.
 
“It's awesome, but I definitely don't want him to give up his jersey," Alex Jones said. "If I did play, I would want to play with him because he's one of my best friends.”
 
“I might be playing, or I might not," Griffin Johnson added. "If I just see him playing one day, I just think it would be cool.”
 
Stacy Johnson, according to Abby, also mentioned that PBL Junior high School wanted to do more as well in support of Alex -- and from there, the idea of Hoops for Alex was born.
 
The school is looking for items to be raffled off for Alex Jones during its boys basketball games on Jan. 11.
 
"We are all overwhelmed and very appreciative of the outpouring of love and support from everyone," Abby said. "It is amazing that so many people care about Alex and all of us.  We can't even begin to thank everyone enough."
 
“It's nice. It means a lot," Alex Jones added. “Thank you all. I would like to thank everybody – Mrs. Johnson, all my teachers and, definitely, Griffin.”

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