Jean Trebek on Finding Joy with Her Husband Alex During Their Greatest Challenge

Faith, family and friends helped this loving couple cope with his pancreatic cancer.

Posted in , Jul 27, 2020

Jean and Alex Trebek

Alex Trebek passed away at 80 on November 8, 2020. This August 2020 story from Jean, his beloved wife of nearly 30 years, inspires us all to face our challenges with courage and faith and to embrace and savor the hope and joy that surround us all.

We’d gone to Israel to visit the sites of the Holy Land in December 2018, taking our son and daughter, Matthew and Emily, then 27 and 24. We’d finished dinner one night, and I looked across the table at Alex. His coloring seemed off. “You feeling okay?” I asked.

“I’m good,” he said. Alex is not one to complain. But he admitted that he was having some stomach pains. I figured, okay, we were in a different country. Maybe it was something he ate. Later, back home in California, things were still not right. His doctor ran some tests, then some more. We weren’t so worried that we canceled a trip to New York. It was there, in our hotel, that we got a call from his doctor. “We need to see you as soon as you get back from your trip. We have some concerns.”

Jean and Alex Trebek on the cover of the August 2020 Guideposts
     As seen in the August 2020
     issue of Guideposts

Some concerns. What did that mean? I pulled my mind back from the fear that was welling inside me. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. I wouldn’t let myself jump to conclusions. But I knew Alex was thinking what I was thinking.

We cut our trip short. He went in for a CT scan—all of this at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, not far from our house. The doctor called back within hours. “We need to talk,” he said. We went back and got the news. Pancreatic cancer with a tumor that had spread to the soft lining of his stomach. Stage IV.

It felt as if the bottom dropped out of my world. Again. Alex has been everything to me. I met him when I was 21, a challenging period in my life. His friendship—we were friends for a long time before becoming a couple—changed my life.

I’d grown up on the East Coast, in a tight-knit Catholic family on Long Island. There were just three of us kids: my older brother, Chris, my younger sister, Audrey, and me. I moved to California to go to Pepperdine University. College was exciting, but it was so hard being away from everything I’d known. Chris was a year and a half older than me, and I looked after him. We were inseparable. Like Frick and Frack, my mom said.

After leaving Pepperdine, I was still here on the West Coast, trying to recover from a tragedy I never thought I’d get over. Saturdays I had a part-time job, doing bookkeeping for a guy in Malibu. Alex was my boss’s buddy. He’d come over every Saturday to play backgammon and have lunch. I knew that he was on some TV show, but he never said much about it and I didn’t ask.

One day I called my mom back on Long Island and told her I’d met this nice guy, Alex Trebek. “Don’t you know who he is?” she said. “He’s the host of that game show Jeopardy!

If only I could have told Chris. He would’ve gotten such a kick out of knowing that his little sister knew some guy on TV. Chris and I were close in age and closer in our connection. I took a lot of responsibility for him. Born with hydrocephalus—water on the brain—back when they knew much less about how to treat it, he was really delicate and had some developmental delays.

We went to school together, and I promised my parents that I would watch out for him. Sometimes I would even leave my classroom to go check on him. I took care of my brother, and it felt like a gift rather than a burden. Other kids might have resented that responsibility. I thought it was a blessing. Then came that terrible day my sophomore year of college.

I was on the phone with Mom when she said there was someone at the door. “Hold on a sec, Jean,” she said and put the phone down. I heard a man’s voice. The next thing I heard was a terrible scream. Mom’s scream. The man got on the line. He said he was a police officer. “Who am I talking to?” he asked. “Her daughter,” I said. Where was my mom? What had happened? “There’s been a car accident,” he said, “and your brother was killed.” December 7, 1984. The worst day of my life.

Now, almost 35 years later, came this grim diagnosis. All the terrible pain and loss I’d felt at Chris’s death came back. Only my faith in God’s ultimate goodness and love had gotten me through that period of my life. Then I met Alex, as if the Lord had led me through my grief to the man I would love forever. I couldn’t imagine my life without him. Could I accept this diagnosis? Could my faith sustain me now? Could I be strong for Alex and myself?

I looked over at Alex. How would he manage? Right away he exhibited that same strength he’d always had, that steadiness and calm I drew from him. His attitude wasn’t “Why me?” but much more “Okay, what do we do?”

“We need to get you on chemo,” said the doctor, “to stop the cancer from spreading.” That was the first protocol. Alex would start right away. Once a week, I would take him to his appointment. I’d sit with him and then drive him back home. Look after him the way I once did for Chris. No matter how resilient you are, cancer has a way of making you feel truly vulnerable. Alex and I needed each other more than ever.

I wondered then how long we had. More than a year and a half later, we’re still at it, every day a gift.

Some days it’s a struggle for Alex to get out of bed. But he’s never missed taping a show. That passion for his work—it’s a kind of calling. He truly looks forward to getting to the studio at 5:45 a.m.—so he can do several episodes in a single day. It rejuvenates him.

It rejuvenates me as well. With each passing day, I have found so much to be grateful for. Alex’s work. Our kids, our friends, a sunset, a flower blooming in our garden. This didn’t have to be a death sentence. It could be a life sentence. A constant reminder of how precious life is. The smallest things that I once took for granted now carry more meaning. I think that is how God keeps us in the moment. He focuses us with grace.

We’ve made lifestyle changes that have helped. Alex is definitely a meat-and-potatoes guy. We’ve cut back on sugar and shifted to a more vegetarian diet. We discovered quinoa pasta. He likes that. And because the chemo and the pain meds affect his appetite, I give him a protein drink in the mornings loaded with good things. We usually eat one big meal a day at 5 p.m. Then we watch Jeopardy! Of course, he knows most of the answers, but he never tells me! Sometimes I play along like any other fan. And I am a big fan.

Alex never tried to hide the news from his audience. He went public right away. The outpouring of supportive messages and sincere concern was overwhelming. The viewers and contestants really care. After all, they’ve been with him even longer than I have. One recent contestant, who didn’t know the answer to the question on Final Jeopardy, instead wrote on his card, “What is We ♥ You, Alex!” Alex, who is known for keeping a cool head on the show, was very touched by that remark.

Truth to tell, some days I feel really sad and angry. Then I’ll say, “That’s enough, Jean.” I’ll try to do something for someone else to pull myself out of it. Not just for Alex but for one of our friends. Sending a reassuring e-mail, calling someone, sharing a cup of tea. Opening myself up. Accepting what’s happening. Thank goodness, I had already started, a lifestyle website, and my blog on the site is a way to share our journey with others.

On the website, I’ve interviewed a variety of amazing people…actors, spiritual leaders, others who have made a difference. I pose a question like “What does forgiveness mean to you?” or “Has there been something that changed your life for the better?” The beauty of it is to hear what comes out of people.

Our slogan at insidewink through all of this has been “share the good.” If Alex is having a rough time, if he’s exhausted after a chemo session, I can look for the good. I can share what’s good in our lives and in other people’s. How people care for and love one another.

I’m not alone in taking care of Alex. Our son, Matthew, owns three restaurants in Harlem, New York. He closed them during the quarantine and came home to L.A. It has been a huge blessing to have him here, along with our daughter, Emily, who lives close to us and visits all the time. My sister and my mom are another extraordinary source of support. My church community is wonderful, as well as all our dear friends.

One thing I have always found so dear about Alex—and something you probably don’t know about him—is that he is a tinkerer. Our garage looks like a small hardware store. He can fix anything and loves to. The other afternoon I caught him fiddling over something with his tools. I almost interrupted him to ask what he was up to. But then I thought, No, I just want to watch…to just be in this moment.

Maybe what I learned about caregiving for Chris is still with me. I kept an eye out for Chris, like my parents told me to. Most of the time, though, it was just the joy of being in each other’s company. That’s what it’s like for Alex and me. We go on little walks together, if he’s up to it. We eat dinner together. We watch comedies and movies on TV. Or we’ll sit in the swing in our backyard and sway to and fro, feeling the warmth of the sun, gazing at the flowers or up at the sky, knowing we are loved. Not just by each other but by a God who will see us through all things.

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