By Brayden Nuessen
A quiet, down to earth kid who just started school at Quincy University has a story that is little known to Quincy University students.
His parents were always cheering in the packed gym at Quincy Notre Dame High School and at QU basketball games this year because they are proud of all the accomplishments that he has made academically and as an athlete.
Justin’s parents are also proud of the way that their son, Justin, became a cancer survivor.
Justin’s parents, Jori and Jeff, have been married for 25 years.
Jeff Bottorff was born and raised in Crescent City, Illinois and Jori Bottorff was born and raised Watseka, Illinois about 100 miles south of Chicago near Champaign.
Jori was a surgical technologist before having three kids, Jacob 22, Justin 18, and Jonny 16. She stayed at home with the kids before heading back to work at several different jobs and before returning as a surgical technologist in Hannibal.
Jeff worked for HR department with Avery Dennison Corporation for 12 years before working for Dot Foods as VP of training and quality where he currently works in Quincy.
Justin’s older brother Jacob is serving in the Navy. Justin’s younger brother, Jonny is currently a junior at QND and is currently being recruited by multiple Division I teams for football.
Three weeks before Christmas in 2002, the Bottorff family changed forever when Jori discovered that her son had cancer.
“When Justin was three and a half, a couple of weeks before Christmas, he did not feel well all week, and we went to church on Wednesday night, and they had a birthday party for Jesus,” Jori also explained. “Santa was there and (Justin) didn’t want to sit on his lap, and he was clingy and whiny as that was very unusual for him since he was an easy, outgoing kid.”
A couple of days later, Jori discovered a big bump on his left abdomen.
“On Friday night while giving Justin a bath, I noticed his left abdomen was bigger than his right, I hollered at Jeff, and he looked at it,” Jori explained, “We then called Jeff’s sister who was a nurse, and she told us to call the pediatrician.”
Since it was the evening and the end of the week, the pediatrician’s office was closed, so they were directed to the ER.
“We went to the ER, and they took blood work which came back completely normal, and what they thought they saw in the X-Ray was an enlarge spleen,” Jori stated. “The doctors told us to go on home and go to the pediatrician on Monday, it is nothing major.”
The pediatrician happened to have office hours on Saturday, and Jori gave them the call. However, they were directed to head back to the Emergency Room.
“When I described the bump to the pediatrician, she knew what it was right away and had us go back to the hospital,” Jori explained. “They did more labs and the Ultrasound showed a tumor of some sort and they didn’t know (what type) until they did surgery on it whether it was a Wilms Tumor or Neuroblastoma.”
When they discovered the cancer, they quickly schedule surgery to have it removed.
“They sent us to Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago and got admitted that evening and had surgery on Monday afternoon,” Jori stated. “So, we went from being in the bathtub getting ready to watch our evening/weekend movie to having cancer and surgery on Monday.”
Jeff said that his son’s tumor grew so much during that weekend.
After removing the tumor, doctors discovered that it was Wilms Tumor.
According to the American Cancer Society, Wilms Tumor is a type of cancer that starts in the kidneys and is found most commonly in children between the ages of 3-5.
This cancer has around 95 percent survival rate and it is often found early.
“They removed the tumor and what was left on the kidney,” Jori explained. “The tumor ate his kidney and it was described to us that it looked like a walnut.”
Going through this was tough on Jori and Jeff, however, Justin was three, so he did not understand what was happening.
“I didn’t understand what was happening and all I know I did not want to be at the doctor’s office and be at home doing what any three-year-old would be doing,” Justin said.
Justin explained that having his brothers with him helped a lot. Justin’s younger brother was only a baby at the time however, he explained that having his older brother Jacob around was a big deal for him.
“My older brother was seven at the time and having him around was huge for me,” Justin explained. “He was always in the room with me playing Legos or watching T.V.”
After the surgery, Justin’s parents were surprise to see him recovery quickly.
“He was so young, he handled it like a trooper,” Jeff explained. “When he got out of surgery, he was a big fan of chocolate donuts and he wanted it.”
Usually after surgery, hospitals try not to have you eat certain after a time period before letting you eat whatever you want.
“He wanted that chocolate donuts in the worst way,” Jori stated.
On Wednesday, two days until having the tumor removed, the rest of his family came and visited him.
“We gave him a bath for the first time and he got up and started walking around the cancer floor of the hospital,” Jori explained. “There is a playroom in the cancer floor, so he walked all the way down there, keep in mind that he had just been cut open on his left side of his abdomen.”
A nurse told Jori a story that she says she will always remember.
“I told her that I don’t know how you could do this, this is so sad to me,” Jori explained. “She said that kids are the best patients there are because they have no fear of death or fear of their disease.”
They were able to get home before Christmas, a week after surgery, and began radiation a day after Christmas.
“We did radiation for 11 straight days, and did chemotherapy once a week for six straight months,” Jori explained.
Jeff recalled several moments during radiation treatment and how Justin acted better than most three year olds.
“I remember those rooms and they (patients) have to lay completely still on the table and taking a three year old,” Jeff explained. “We got to a point where we drive up, go in and lay down and we would be in and out of there in 15 minutes.”
After months of chemotherapy, Justin got his last treatment right before the 4th of July. He also had to have another surgery.
“When they removed his kidney, they put in the port, so they removed it soon after the last treatment,” Jori explained.
Justin then went into remission.
Life after cancer
Jori recalled a moment that summer about Justin with no hair.
“Something funny happened that summer when he was playing with kids in the neighborhood, it seemed like every summer, a new Disney movie came out so that is what they played,” Jori explained. “That summer, Star Wars (Attack of the Clones) came out and Mace Windu came in the picture, they were running around with lifesavers and Justin had to be Windu because he was bald.”
Before Justin’s parents discovered that Justin had cancer, he had just started pre-school.
“We pulled him out of pre-school because it was too risky with all the germs and going through chemo, he went back to school the next fall,” Jori explained.
Life after cancer did not bother Justin growing up in school.
“He never used it as an excuse,” Jeff stated.
Growing up, Justin had to go back every three months for scans and labs.
Jori explained how he hated needles with a passion and it took him until he was 14 or 15 to get used to the tests.
Love for Basketball
Jeff’s company that he was with at the time wanted the family to transfer to Cleveland, so they moved there in 2004.
After being in remission for four years, Justin was declared cancer-free.
“At that point, he was cured and he moved from seeing a regular oncologist to a long term late effect clinic,” Jori explained.
Cancer survivors have a higher chance of getting cancer again after going through chemotherapy and radiation, so they typically get checked out once a year.
During their short time in Cleveland, he developed his love for basketball.
“My side of my family were sports junkies and got to go to Cavaliers’ games in that playoff environment,” Jeff said. “When we moved in, his room had all Ohio State Buckeyes stuff.”
He also started playing basketball in the YMCA where his talents flourished.
“He was starting to get good at it and he also loved baseball and he would know all the stats and everything,” Jeff stated.
Jeff then took a new job that requiring relocating to Mt. Sterling.
The first year while in Mt. Sterling, Justin was in second grade and he played on his first team.
“I love basketball in a small town because you can get involved so I put together a little team to go play and Justin learned to grow playing with kids older than him,” Jeff explained.
He was always playing with the older kids.
“I coached him all the way up to junior high and he always had high expectations early on,” Jeff state. “I pushed him but he wanted to get pushed, he would always go to the gym and I think he found he was successful and pretty good at it.”
High School Success
Before Justin became a freshmen, the family moved again to Quincy where Justin attended QND.
“The move was hard on me because I have grown up on Mt. Sterling and all my friends were there and it was where I wanted to be,” Justin explained.
Notre Dame basketball went through a rough stretch going through three coaches in one year while the team was young and rebuilding.
“I think those first two years was the toughest for him but it prepared him for long term mentally,” Jeff stated.
Justin went on to play a big role the last two years leading the team to a deep run in the playoffs.
“That was the most fun ride of my life, the first two years of basketball were really tough and it was a struggle for me personally,” Justin explained. “Then coach Meyer came in and connected with him really well as we had a really fun group.”
One memorable game Justin was involved in was a regional championship game at Notre Dame. The game was against Pleasant Plains and it was a wild game.
He was involved in a shoving match with another player and ended up getting ejected from the game and being suspended for the next game.
He received lots of support from his teammates following the ejection.
“I remember his teammate, Jacob Mayfield came up to me after the game and said that we got this, he will be back to play the game after the next,” Jori explained.
Notre Dame would end up winning the next game and ended up losing later in the playoffs.
Commitment to Quincy University
In April of 2017, Justin committed to play for Quincy University.
He is currently a redshirt for the Hawks and he will be looking to make an big impact for the Hawks in the future.