Given Less Than a Year To Live Due To Terminal Brain Cancer, Jim Yanko Beats Odds
March 6, 2008
By Lou Pavlovich, Jr.
Stockton, Calif. -- University of Pacific pitching coach Jim Yanko is simply a miracle of science.
He was told in November of 2003 that he had terminal brain cancer and less than a year to live.
"I had endured five excruciating days of headaches at the time," said Yanko.
"It felt like an ice pick was being driven into my skull. On the fifth day, I woke up at about 5:30 a.m. and told my wife, Lynn, that this wasn't normal. So I drove myself to the emergency room at St. Joseph's Hospital in Stockton. They ran MRI and CT scans. Then I knew right away that something was wrong when the emergency room doctor came into my room and asked if my family was close by."
Jim told him that his family lived in Stockton, and he called his wife, a school teacher, to come immediately to the hospital.
"When Lynn arrived, a neurosurgeon came into my room shortly after that. He was talking a mile a minute and explained that they found a golf ball sized lesion on the right frontal lobe of my brain, and they needed to get it out right away. They were showing us all the pictures of the scans. Then they reserved the operating room for 2 p.m."
When the neurosurgeon walked out, Jim asked his wife if a second opinion was appropriate.
"She reminded me that the neurosurgeon presented a strong case that if the lesion didn't come out immediately, there was a good chance I could lose the entire left side of my body. So we both decided to go ahead with the surgery."
At the time, the neurosurgeon had no idea the lesion was cancerous.
Yanko underwent a four-hour surgical procedure on his brain to extract as much of the lesion as possible.
"After the surgery was completed, the neurosurgeon wanted to see Lynn in his office. At that moment, she was told that I had cancer, and it was a stage four glioblastoma multiforme. Stage four is the worst possible scenario. The neurosurgeon then told Lynn, who was accompanied by her mom, that I probably had 10-12 months to live.
"The only positives were that I was young at age 35 and had the cancerous lesion in the front right area of my brain which is the best possible spot to have it in situations like this. In less than 24 hours, my family's life had been turned inside out.
"When I was ultimately notified of the situation after recovering from the surgery, all I could think about was what was going to happen to my wife Lynn and my two beautiful daughters (Miranda age 6 and Abbie age 2 at the time).
"The neurosurgeon and oncologist told me that they tried to get as much of the cancer out as they could. But it is virtually impossible to get all of it. They also explained that this type of cancer will come back. It's just a matter of when. The doctors also told me that I was lucky that I experienced headaches. If headaches did not present themselves, then I would have been dead in 30 days."
GROWING MORE TIRED
At the time, Yanko was the head coach at San Joaquin Delta Junior College in Stockton and was right in the middle of fall baseball.
"What happens is that you gradually grow more tired. And that is precisely what was happening to me prior to the severe headaches. At the time, I was also a special education teacher at Lincoln High School. When I would arrive at Delta College's practice 25 or 30 minutes prior to the schedule start time, I would walk up to the press box and lay down on the floor to get some rest. And this was not like me at all.
"I was forgetting things. At Lincoln High School, I had a lady come up to me between classes and let me know that I left my wallet on the desk. I had $90-$100 in the wallet which was not like me. I was forgetting things and getting tired all the time. My last fall game during this period was at Merced College. I was driving one of the vans back to Stockton and had to pull over to the side of the road because I was too tired. One of the other coaches took over. Again, that was not like me.
"Between teaching at Lincoln High School and being the head coach at Delta College, it can get a little taxing at times. But I had never been this tired in my entire life."
Yanko said that after the prognosis was made, he and his family began praying as much as they could as well as numerous baseball coaching friends across the nation.
"I couldn't help but wonder if I would see my girls graduate from high school. Would I be able to walk my daughters down the aisle when they get married. All those emotions came forward at this time. That was my biggest fear."
"I had a couple of amazing coaches (Jim Fisher and Denny Peterson ) who worked with me at Delta College and did everything that was needed in the program while I was going through this."
OUTLOOK OF LIFE BLEAK
With the ominous projection that Yanko's life would end in 10-12 months, this well respected coach didn't throw in the towel.
He underwent an aggressive treatment regimen of radiation and chemotherapy in an attempt to stop the cancer from spreading.
"I was fortunate to take my chemotherapy orally since I didn't vomit as other cancer patients do with this treatment. So there was no need to deliver it to me by intravenous injection for five hours or other such procedure.
"But the radiation and chemotherapy just wipes you out. When I was going through this, I couldn't drive or do anything. My dad and sister would come up to the house because my wife went back to work. They would have to sit with me. My dad would take me to radiation treatments when needed. All my hair fell out. I didn't have any of the sores in the mouth that some patients get. So the treatment went as well as it could without bad reactions. I was on chemotherapy for five days and then off for 21 days. I was on radiation for 31 consecutive days."
Yanko said he didn't go back to work at Lincoln High School as a special education instructor for a long period of time following the initial surgery.
"But I did come back to the team at Delta J.C. about a month and a half after the surgery in November of 2003. I worked things out with the human resources people at the high school until I was in a position to come back. I got about 100 days of differential pay."
Yanko was asked how he was able to coach at Delta J.C. despite going through chemotherapy and radiation.
"It wasn't easy since I was constantly tired. I also dressed really warm because in January, it gets cold in Stockton outside."
Yanko said he eventually saw his energy level come back over the months of treatment.
In July of 2004 after a precautionary set of scans, a pathologist noticed more growth in the right frontal lobe of the brain which was suspected to be cancer.
"So I had another procedure done at the University of California-San Francisco Hospital where they numbed my head and then attached a steel frame to my head by screwing it in. My head was totally still with this frame as the device zapped the area of my brain where they thought cancer was coming back with millions and millions of low dose gamma rays."
NEW BRAIN GROWTH FOUND
Jim suffered another setback in July of 2005 as unusual new growth was found in the brain.
"That was the toughest one to go through for me. My brother-in-law came up from southern California and took my daughters, Miranda and Abbie, with him for at least a week so I could concentrate on my surgery and recovery. I didn't know if I would see them again.
"I qualified for a clinical trial based on having brain cancer.
"They took 10-12 tissue samples. When the pathologist looked at them, not one of them came back positive for cancer. What they thought was cancer was an abscess.
"Unfortunately, they ruptured the abscess in my head. What followed was a massive brain infection. I was forced to undergo six straight weeks of antibiotics for 24 hours a day to stop the infection.
"But I guess that was a blessing in disguise. Since August of 2005, I have been cancer free, according to the numerous MRIs I have gone through since that time.
"Doctors have told me that it is a miracle I don't have cancer any more. For me to be alive this long after the initial diagnosis in November of 2003 is remarkable. They gave me 10-12 months to live. Every two months I have been given an MRI to see if any new cancer cells come back in my brain. And recently they have pushed that back to an MRI every three months.
"This whole ordeal has made me appreciate everyone in my family so much more for all the support and help they have given me.
"My wife Lynn is just the strongest woman ever. What she had to go through while I went through this was amazing. She had a full time job and was a full time mom raising our two daughters while taking care of me. Three other people were important in this process as well with my dad Bob, sister Michele Marchy, Fred Corral (pitching coach at the University of Tennessee who came all the way to Stockton to be with him) and Matt Gonzalez (chaplain at Delta College)."