'Tonkery Tough': Three-sport athlete from Grayslake focused on beating leukemia

Updated 12/14/2018 6:20 AM
  • Grayslake Central senior Abby Tonkery is battling leukemia.

      Grayslake Central senior Abby Tonkery is battling leukemia. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Girls basketball player Abby Tonkery of Grayslake Central senior is battling leukemia but is still playing for the Rams.

      Girls basketball player Abby Tonkery of Grayslake Central senior is battling leukemia but is still playing for the Rams. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Grayslake Central senior Abby Tonkery is battling leukemia but is still playing basketball for the Rams.

      Grayslake Central senior Abby Tonkery is battling leukemia but is still playing basketball for the Rams. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Grayslake Central basketball player Abby Tonkery is battling leukemia.

      Grayslake Central basketball player Abby Tonkery is battling leukemia. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

More than a hashtag, more than a newly named award for the girls cross country team, it is an attitude.

"Tonkery Tough."

For those who thumb on Twitter, it's "#TonkeryTough."

Her Grayslake Central classmate Cassidy Beshel came up with the motto, Abby Tonkery says. Tonkery's best friend since the first grade, Grace Herrmann, saw to it that "Tonkery Tough" got slapped on rubber bracelets and T-shirts.

A tough girl, flanked by warmhearted friends, was prepared for a stormy journey. Tonkery, a senior and three-sport athlete for the Rams, had been diagnosed with leukemia on March 27 of this year.

Said Tonkery, wearing a headband that covered most of her short hair at basketball practice this week: "When I started coming back to school about a week after I had been diagnosed, to walk the halls and just see a ton of people wearing my bracelet, it was honestly one of the coolest things -- just to know that so many people were behind me."

Her friends, family, coaches and teachers have always been there. And since last spring, she has needed them more than ever. Who knew that simple fatigue and an achy hip would turn out being a nightmare? Lisa Tonkery took Abby, her oldest daughter, to her pediatrician. Blood work raised eyebrows, so the Tonkery family was told to pick a hospital, which wound up being Lurie Children's in Chicago. There, Abby, shockingly, was diagnosed with leukemia.

"She was always so healthy," Lisa said. "With her being an athlete (cross country, basketball, track), she was in incredible shape. It was always funny when we went to the pediatrician because they always joked that she had such a thin file. They saw her once a year (for an annual exam). She was never sick."

Another test revealed Abby had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, also known as ALL.

"Which I'm actually really lucky because it's one of the types with the highest-cure rate," said Abby, who spent almost a week at Lurie's after being diagnosed.

"They were all so excited about that," a smiling Lisa Tonkery said of the staff at Lurie's. "They were so cute. They said, 'What you don't know is we did a cheer in the hallway when we got her results back.' (Lurie's) is just such a positive, amazing place. They did such a good job of just reassuring us that it's going to be really awful and really rough, but the big picture is she's going to be OK."

That big-picture outlook is what the Tonkery family -- Lisa, husband Gregg, Cameron, 19, Abby, 17, and Emma, 10 -- has clung to since Abby's diagnosis.

Abby's first thought before she learned she had ALL was, "What even is leukemia?" The smart student learned soon enough that leukemia is cancer of the blood. She then thought about Emma and Cameron and how they were going to "freak out," she says, because they were scared for their sister.

"It didn't really hit me until a few hours after I was diagnosed that my life was really going to change," Abby said.

And it did.

Within a month of her first chemotherapy treatment, she lost 30 pounds on her athletic frame. Walking at forest preserves and at cross country practice have helped her regain strength, although she is far from being ready to compete in a basketball game for the Rams. In the hospital, instead of just resting in her bed, the don't-pity-me Tonkery would hop on a stationary bike.

Funny, despite enduring chemotherapy treatments once a week since being diagnosed, Abby maintained a healthy disposition and kept finding positives in everything that toyed with her world. This is a kid who on her first day out of the hospital, knowing that her light brown hair would start falling out, got it cut and donated it.

"Which I think was really good for me," Abby said. "I felt like I was doing something good with my hair, instead of just losing it."

Losing her hair came with gaining perspective.

"I guess when you're growing up, everything is candy and rainbows until something really drastic happens in your life," Abby said. "I feel like I've grown up a lot in the last nine months. Just going to the hospital once a week and seeing kids who are so much sicker than me, it makes me almost feel lucky. And I feel really grateful, especially because I have such wonderful support (among) my family, my friends, my teammates, my coaches."

She's learned through her Lurie's experience to not dwell on why her illness happened but rather to focus on the positives that have come out of it.

For one, she discovered she wants to study nursing. She's been accepted into three nursing programs.

Lisa likes to tell the story of how Abby insisted on playing in this fall's powder puff football game, even though she had a chemo treatment in the morning. Abby took a nausea pill and was ready to play some football.

"You would have never in a million years guessed how sick she had felt just two hours before," Lisa said. "I watched her just battle through it. She did amazing."

During the summer, before she headed to Lurie's for an inpatient stay for chemo (4-5 days in the hospital), Abby woke up at 5 a.m. and went for a run, which turned out to be a mile. Lurie's staff was amazed.

At the hospital, Abby would walk the halls and, in time, other kids joined her.

A Lurie's legend was being born.

Abby even joined the basketball team on its trip to Purdue University for a team camp in the summer. Grayslake Central coach Steve Ikenn got her into a couple of games just for a minute, so she could get the experience of playing on a Big Ten court.

"Her mom sent me a picture of her, and the smile on her face when she was out on the floor was priceless," Ikenn said. "She's not going to get that chance next year. She's going to college."

Ikenn knows all about "Tonkery Tough." The 5-foot-8 Abby played varsity minutes as a reserve guard last season for a team that won 23 games.

"She's a tough competitor," said Ikenn, who's also Abby's AP stats teacher and who along with assistant coach Steve Reitman visited her in the hospital the day after she was diagnosed. "Last year she was a great defensive player off our bench. She came in with that feistiness."

Tonkery attended every cross country practice and every meet. Even though she didn't compete, her presence was felt. The cross country team named an award after her.

The Tonkery Tough Award goes to someone who worked hard to overcome an obstacle. Abby was the inaugural winner.

What a run it's been. Life is good, actually.

"I've always known she was strong, but I've been just incredibly impressed with her resilience," said Lisa, the proud mother. "She has done things that have just astounded me."

January will mark a milestone. That's when Abby transitions to maintenance phase (chemo once a month), which could last into the summer of 2020.

"I feel pretty strong," said Abby, who gets chemo every 10 days now. "I'm doing physical therapy so I think that's really helped me build up my strength."

Tonkery has dressed for every basketball game this season and participates in warmups. She's been medically cleared to play a game and hopes to achieve that goal before the season ends.

"My mind wants to (play) so badly," she said with wide eyes, "but my body's just not quite there yet."

It's only a matter of time. As the bracelet explains, Tonkery is tough.

• Follow Joe on Twitter: @JoeAguilar64

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