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February 27, 2008

Yanko's return puts things in perspective

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Jim Yanko has no problem remembering a particular November night in 2003.

You wouldn't, either, if the result was being told you had less than a year to live.

It began as a typical night for the Yanko family. Jim and wife Lynn tucked their young daughters, Miranda and Abbie, into their beds. After chatting about the day, Lynn and Jim headed to bed as well.

Jim woke up in the middle of the night with an excruciating headache. It wasn't the first time it had happened; the headaches actually began four days before.

"The headaches were horrible," said Yanko, now the pitching coach at Pacific (he was the head coach at Delta College, a two-year school in Stockton, Calif., at the time). "I had cases of tiredness and forgetfulness, and the headaches felt like someone was driving an ice pick through my head."

The pain was so bad, Jim drove himself to the emergency room looking for answers. There, doctors ran a few tests and did an MRI on Jim's head. Then, a doctor approached Yanko and asked if he had any family close by.

Yanko, now 39, knew the news wasn't going to be good. He called Lynn, who hurried to the hospital. Once she arrived, the doctor met with the couple.

"He came up to my room and told me I had a lesion the size of a golf ball on the front side of my head," Yanko said. "He then told me he had the surgery room open for later that afternoon.

"When I heard I had a tumor in my brain, I asked my wife if I should get a second opinion. In the end, I took his advice knowing that if I waited any longer, I might lose functions on my left side."

Before performing what turned out to be a four-hour surgery, the doctor pulled Lynn aside.

"Prior to me being put to sleep, the doctor took my wife to his office and said I had 10 or 11 months to live," he says. "At the time, I had no clue that was my situation."

After the surgery, Yanko began radiation treatments and thought he was in good shape. Then there was more bad news: The doctors thought the cancer was coming back. This time, they said Yanko had three or four years to live.

Yanko then turned to doctors at the University of California-San Francisco medical center for assistance. UCSF doctors thought they found something in his brain in June 2004. As a result, they performed a Gamma Knife Procedure, a knifeless surgery that allows doctors to treat certain types of tumors with radiation directly on the affected area.

Yanko was diagnosed with Glioblastoma, the same type of brain tumor that killed former major-leaguers Johnny Oates, Tug McGraw and Dan Quisenberry.

In July 2005, doctors thought they found yet another tumor in Yanko's brain. More tests were peformed, and doctors took 13 samples for further evaluation.

This time, there was good news: The tests came back negative for cancer.

What had appeared to be another tumor instead was a ruptured abscess on his brain. As a result, he took a series of antibiotics for six weeks until the infection was gone.

Somewhat hidden in the diagnosis of the abscess was the best news possible: Yanko no longer had cancer. He has been cancer-free since August 2005.

"During this entire ordeal, my life span appeared to be three to five years," Yanko says. "I thought to myself, 'Am I ever going to get the opportunity to walk my little girls down the aisle for their wedding?' "

Yanko says the toughest day of his battle with cancer came during the tests in August 2005. Given the nature of the tests, anything could've happened.

"My brother-in-law Matt came up to be with my little girls when I had the clinical trial," he says. "I wasn't real sure if I'd ever see my family again."

FINDING STRENGTH THROUGH OTHERS

From the time Yanko found out he was in a fight for his life to that August day almost 21 months later, when he was declared cancer-free, he leaned on his wife, father, extended family and friends in the coaching profession for support.

Yanko credits Lynn and his father, Bob, for helping him keep things in perspective while also taking care of Miranda and Abbie, now 10 and 7, respectively.

"My whole recovery was just inspirational," he says. "My wife I can't say enough. Not only did she help me out so much, she took care of our daughters.

"She was a true hero throughout the process."

Lynn deflects the credit.

"I just did what anyone would do when faced with something like that," she says. "Jim was my inspiration through the tough times. He never complained; he just continued life with a positive attitude."

Jim said his dad often was with him when Lynn couldn't be there. Bob sometimes drove his son to radiation treatments while also providing moral support.

Yanko also says Tennessee pitching coach Fred Corral was a key figure during the healing process.

"Fred was an amazing part of my life during the time I had cancer," he says. "He's one of my closest friends, and when he found out I had cancer, he was one of the first coaches to come see me."

Corral knew he needed to be there for Yanko.

"When I heard my great friend was ill, I had to go out to California and support him," Corral says. "I really didn't think I did anything out of the norm."

While in California, Corral and Yanko shared fellowship and faith, while also digging deep to find the purpose of life during tough times. Yanko insists he learned a great deal from Corral during the process, but Corral feels he learned a valuable lesson, too.

"What I took from Jim's situation was a positive attitude and the strength of mind to put yourself in a position to have a positive approach on life," Corral says. "I truly believe Jim's value of life and the positives that go along with it helped him conquer cancer."

Corral often uses Yanko as an example to his players.

"I tell my players about Jim's attitude all the time," he said. "Jim is a luminary. He's a definite winner."

Pacific coach Ed Sprague, a former major-league third baseman, and his staff also visited Yanko. The California Community College Coaches Association provided the Yanko family with a check for $10,000. Texas Rangers reliever Eddie Guardado, who had played for Yanko at Delta College, and various coaches provided moral and financial support at the hospital as part of a Christmas tree for the Yanko family.

Jim also had groups of people around the globe praying for him. Prayer groups were set up in places such as Honduras and Alaska.

"No matter how I felt, I thanked God for the people in my life and for allowing me to put my feet on the ground," Yanko says. "I woke up every day convincing myself that I'd be healthy, whole and strong."

That attitude has led to a new life for Yankos.

READY FOR A NEW CHALLENGE

When Yanko left his post as an assistant at Pacific after the 1999 season for the head-coaching job at Delta, he wasn't sure what the future held for his family. He certainly didn't think he'd ever return to Pacific as anything but head coach.

After serving as coach at Delta starting in 1999 and dealing with his battle against cancer, Yanko decided to step down and rest in the spring of 2006.

Last summer, the pitching coach job at Pacific opened up over the summer. Yanko applied, then interviewed for the job. Then came a call from Sprague, asking him to come by the coach's office.

"He said he was going to let me know at some point whether or not I had the job," Yanko says. "He called me into his office, shut the door and asked me what number I wanted to wear."

Two years earlier, Yanko wasn't even sure how long he'd be alive. Now he was in remission and back coaching at Pacific his alma mater.

"I really feel like a new man, but what happened to me has helped put life into perspective," Yanko says. "I love baseball, but it's not my top priority. I now understand just how precious life is."

As was the case throughout his battle with cancer, Lynn will be in the stands to support her husband throughout the season.

"I'm just so happy Coach Sprague gave Jim this opportunity," she says. "I hope his pitchers do well."

Following a close road series loss to Houston, the Tigers return home Wednesday to host Santa Clara in their home opener. Yanko's family and his father are expected to be in attendance. It promises to be a special day for those involved, because Wednesday also happens to be Bob Yanko's birthday.

"Our home opener is going to be an emotional day for me," Yanko says. "After all I've been through, I couldn't ask for more than to be on a baseball diamond."

Editor's Note: In Yanko's first game back Wednesday afternoon, Pacific dropped a 15-6 decision to Santa Clara.

For more information on glioblastoma, please visit the Tug McGraw Fondation or The Kelly Heinz-Grundner Foundation

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at rogersk@yahoo-inc.com.



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