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Surf Shacks 052 – John + Rikki Balk

Meet John and Rikki Balk, a couple of born and raised South Bay natives who call Manhattan Beach home with their two kids Koa and Ruby, and dog Hoale. Just a stone’s throw to the Pacific Ocean at El Porto, their two story townhouse sits up on the hill with a perfect view of the surf lineup and sunsets every evening over the water. Rikki has designed and decorated the beautiful surf-inspired house herself from top to bottom and her paintings even adorn the walls throughout. John is a local ripper who started Auctiv, an all natural sunscreen brand with his friends. A couple years ago, the Balk’s world was turned upside down when John was diagnosed with brain cancer. After undergoing brain surgery, he had a seizure that left half of his body paralyzed and since then he’s been on an intense road to recovery learning how to talk, read, walk, and eventually surf again. Hearing both John and Rikki talk in a positive tone about everything they’ve been through with two young kids at their side is nothing short of inspiring. Their story teaches us that every day is truly a gift and we must live each day like it is our last.

Who are you? Tell us a little about yourselves.

We are a family of four, five including our dog that live at the beach and try to keep things simple.

Where are you both from?

Rikki: I am originally from Manhattan Beach

John: I am from Playa Del Rey and moved to Manhattan Beach 14 years ago.

What are your favorite parts about Manhattan Beach and the South Bay community in general?

John : My favorite things about Manhattan Beach/South Bay are being close to the beach, being able to walk places, and the people/community of the beach area.

Rikki: This is where I feel a sense of home. I like seeing familiar faces of people I have known all my life. The community here is very special. Everything is convenient I hardly ever have to get in my car. Nothing beats long summer days here with friends and family at the beach.

What are your favorite parts about your home?

John: My favorite part about our home is that our kitchen, dining room and living are all open to each other. Rikki did an amazing job designing every inch of the house to make sure it was open yet still cozy. She worked with a friend of ours Sean Reilly who is an incredible craftsman and surfboard shaper and he did all the cabinetry, woodwork, and finishes.

Rikki: The roof top is my favorite spot to chill out and garden.

What do you do for a living?

John: I have been in real estate sales and investments for about 14 years. About 2 years ago, I became a partner in a startup skincare company called Auctiv. We are building a skincare line that is natural and healthy for people and the environment.

Rikki: I was a hairstylist for 12 years. I took a leave about a years ago when John was diagnosed with cancer. John and I now work together in real estate and with Auctiv.

I love your sunscreen – it smells so good, I just want to eat it! John, tell us more about Auctiv and how the idea came about.

Growing up in California and traveling to surf I have always been diligent about using sunscreen. I am the guy you see walking around with tinted face sunscreen on post surf just cruising as if I may get another surf in later in the day. I have never really worried about rubbing sunscreen in either, so when a good friend said he wanted to start a sunscreen company, I was all in.

In a nutshell, to our dismay, we found out how bad and chemical filled most sunscreens are. All us partners were all previously using the same sunscreen, which bummed us out big time. The process of launching our first product was a lengthy and fantastic learning curve about how important formulas are and the simpler they are the better they are. I relate it to buying organic produce versus chemical filled produce; the organic farmers market apple may not look as red and shiny as the chemical one but the organic one taste way better and is better for you.

Our sunscreen is simple, and it works. When my kids, my wife, friend, or myself  are using it I am confident they are not harming their body. Knowing what they are wearing is benefitting them rather than harming them is great feeling, and being able to pronounce all the ingredients in the sunscreen is really cool to. After all the R&D time we spent on formulas was really important to us to sustain a healthy lifestyle.

A couple years ago, John was diagnosed with brain cancer and it is truly inspiring to see what a remarkable comeback he has had since then. How did you first know there was something wrong?

I was having issues with my arm locking up for about a minute or so, and would happen about 10-20 times a days at random times. While it was locking up it I had no control of my whole right arm. I thought it had to do with my arm or shoulder so I started to stretch more and surf a little less. I started to get worked on by massage therapist which helped reduce the amount of times my arm was locking up. I went and saw an orthopedic Dr. and was diagnosed with narrowing of a nerve canal in my neck.

I reduced my massages while traveling on a trip and my arm started to lock up again. Rikki had always wanted me to get a second opinion, and luckily Rikki and I have some close family friends that are a nurse and a doctor. My arm locked up at their house one night at diner, and they sent me to see a neuro surgeon, Dr. Gabirel Hunt. He ordered a brain scan after an initial consultation to rule it out. I have never seen a brain scan before, but I won’t forget the feeling of what I saw on the screen with Dr. Hunt. The scan looked like a golf ball. The tumor had been pushing on my motor cortex causing isolated seizures in my right side. We talked a bit more and he recommended me to go see a colleague of his, Dr. Keith Black. Some of the last advice Dr. Hunt had for me to do was not to Google anything with regards to my tumor, which was some of the best advice I got during the process.

So a week or so later Rikki, my parents, our friend Dr. Ley, and I met with Dr. Black at Cedars-Sinai. We were given my options of what Dr. Black thought about the tumor from the scans. Option 1 was to either to try to get a biopsy of it, which was going to be like surgery because they would need to get quite a bit of it to be certain of the pathology, or go in and try and get out as much as possible which could possibly leave me in a wheelchair depending on how much Dr. Black would have to go into my motor cortex to get the tumor.

My initial gut reaction was to get out as much as possible because I didn’t want to take chance of the tumor growing more into my motor cortex and affect my speech, vision, and other functions. I wanted to watch my kids grow up with my wife. So I made the choice to resect as much of the tumor as possible with possibility of being in a wheelchair.

I signed up for all of the clinical studies that were available at the time and had surgery 30 days later. My best friend Darren drove Rikki and I to the hospital the morning of the surgery and two of Rikki’s best friends were so awesome to take two weeks off work and come stay at our house to take care of our kids.

The morning of surgery I had scorpion venom injected into my blood stream because one of the studies is that the venom illuminates the tumor so the Doctor has a background to the tumor versus tissue. Dr. Black was very happy with how much of the tumor he was able to get out. Shortly after my surgery, I had a grandma seizure and lost all mobility in my right side. I was admitted to the Intensive Rehabilitation Unit for 45 days to learn how to talk, read, walk, and use my right side again. It was a very humbling experience in which I will never forget.

A week after the surgery, while in the rehab unit, we found out the pathology of the tumor which was an unforgettable day. Our friend, Dr. Eric Ley came running into the room to tell us. I was very naive and had no idea what the different grades even were. From the pre surgery scans, apparently most of the Doctors thought it was a Grade 4. Having our friend Eric tell us it was a Grade 1 and explaining it brought me to tears. Rikki new a lot more than I did so she just broke down in excitement.

Currently we monitor the remaining tumor. So I have an MRI every three months to make sure there aren’t any changes. It is essentially an insurance policy to make sure if there are any changes to it we can get ahead of it. The three month check ups are nerve racking but so far so good. It has been a great feeling knowing there hasn’t been changes to it.

The support from my wife, family, friends, strangers, Doctors., therapists, nurses, and emails/letters was amazing.

Cancer not only affects the patient, but the entire family. What has helped get you all through everything?

We have been so blessed to have so much support from family and friends. Going through something like this gives you a new perspective on things and working to finding gratitude in all that you experience even when you cant always understand it at the time. Having cancer (as long as john stays healthy) in some ways has made life better. We’ve really made a conscious effort to slow life down, be simple and just live a life on our terms and be present

John, what has it been like to basically re-learn how to surf again since the surgery?

Learning to surf has been one of the most humbling and exciting experiences of my life. I have surfed for around 20 years and I realized I that I really took for granted the movements, feelings, and reactions that were learned over those years. I have had the opportunity to work with a lot of amazing therapist to help gain back my right side. Whether or not I gain it all back, I don’t know at this point whether that will it happen, but my goal will always be to try and get back to where I was or better pre surgery physically while still living and enjoying the moment.

Having such a supportive wife, family and group of friends that understand the importance of the ocean to me has been awesome. So many of my friends have gone out of their way to swim, boogie, and surf with me to keep an eye on me while I am in the water which has just been amazing. The ocean has always been an important part of my life and now it is hard to enjoy sometimes because it is also the last place I should be safety wise. Learning to surf is still physically the hardest thing to do, but I really enjoy the time in the water when I forget all of the cancer stuff and just watch the ocean do its it thing.

You both have lived in the area your whole lives. What have been some of the biggest changes you’ve noticed to the neighborhood over the years?

We live in an awesome area and are stoked to be close to the beach. The area we live in has changed into more of a destination spot rather than just a sleepy beach town (like a lot of beach areas). I understand why people are attracted to the area, I came here from somewhere else so I am not one to talk very much. I just wish at times it wasn’t so crowded and there wasn’t so much traffic and maybe a few less people on the sandbars.

John, how would you describe an ideal day of surfing out front here at Porto?

Surfing with all my friends and locals in the rain watching the planes land over the ocean or surfing a little rip bowl doing some wiggles getting some head dips.

Any parting thoughts, words of wisdom, sage advice?

Life is short. Be present in the moment. Do what makes you happy. My Family would like to thank Jamie Meistrell, The Meistrell Family, Dive N Surf, everyone that helped and donated items, the South Bay community, and everyone at Body Glove for putting on a fundraising event to help with the surgery cost and rehabilitation costs. We found out about it while at Cedars and was an absolutely amazing day for my family to have the outpouring of support. It was one of the most special days for my family.

/ Photography and interview by Matt Titone

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