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Standing tall again

Fox sportscaster Jeanne Zelasko has dealt with a string of misfortune that would overwhelm most, but with the support of her family she has endured

May 08, 2008|Larry Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Sportscaster Jeanne Zelasko is back in the Fox studio, anchoring the network's Saturday baseball coverage after a string of off-season misfortune.

It actually began in August, though, when her father, Stanley, died of a heart attack at 71 in his home in Escondido.

The shock of losing her father, Zelasko said, led to another shock -- learning in December that she had thyroid cancer. She recounted what she sees as a strange turn of events.

"My father died on my son Trevor's first day of kindergarten," said Zelasko, 41, who was so concerned with her son that she ignored the constant ringing of her cellphone.

"When I finally did answer it, it was my brother telling me what happened," she said of finding out about her dad. "I screamed, the kind of scream that comes from your gut, and blew out my voice."

Despite her hoarse voice, she was able to work the playoffs and World Series. It went largely unnoticed, perhaps because she has a bit of a gravelly voice anyway.

When the season ended, though, she had her voice problem checked out by a throat specialist. She recalled the doctor telling her she had a polyp and wanted to operate immediately. But Zelasko put off the surgery because of a couple of college football assignments she had been given at the end of last year.

Then, during a routine medical checkup, she mentioned her problem. Soon she was in the hands of Dr. Robert Andrews, a throat surgeon at St. John's Health Center, who said there "was no polyp . . . just an abrasion," recalled Zelasko. Andrews did discover, however, that Zelasko had thyroid cancer.

He operated on her Jan. 11 and in mid-February Zelasko underwent a one-shot, heavy-duty iodine radiation treatment to ensure the cancer would be zapped.

"I was in quarantine for 48 hours," she said. "They say radiation, compared to chemo, is the lesser of two evils. But I felt like they had taken a blow torch to me. It really knocked me for a loop."

She told her husband, Channel 7 sportscaster Curt Sandoval, "I only have 1% of me left. The kids get 75% of that 1%, I get 20% and all you get is 5%."

Of her husband of 10 years, Zelasko said, "He's been great. And he had to forgo running in his first Boston Marathon. He just wasn't able to get in the training he needed."

Sandoval, who qualified for Boston by running a marathon in Tucson a year ago in 3 hours 18 minutes, decided that there will be other Boston Marathons. He recalled how he had been scheduled to participate in an organized run in Pasadena in February as part of his training but chose to stay home. And it was a good thing.

"Jeannie couldn't even get out of bed and Trevor was off playing by himself," Sandoval said.

Zelasko is doing fine now.

"I'm considered cancer free," she said, although she has to undergo checkups every three months.

However, the story of her off-season troubles doesn't end here.

On Dec. 22, four days after she learned about the cancer, Zelasko's 42-year-old sister Terri came down with the worst headache she said she had ever had.

"Terri told me later that she had watched enough doctor shows on television, including 'House,' to know that she might have a brain aneurysm," Zelasko said. "And that's what it was.

"It burst, but fortunately she had gone to a hospital in time."

A couple of months earlier, during the Southern California wildfires, Zelasko was on a balcony at home in Valencia watching the so-called Magic wildfire and knew her family should leave.

"Normally, in those situations, you go to a family member's home," Zelasko said.

Not this time.

Her sister Donna and her husband, Sean, have a horse ranch in Valley Center in northern San Diego County and had already evacuated, along with their horses, because of another wildfire.

And her brother Jeff and his wife, Cathy, live in San Marcos and also had to evacuate for the same reason and took their mother, Rose, with them.

"Fox told me I could bring my kids with me to the World Series," Zelasko said of Trevor, 6, and Isabela, 2 1/2 . She ended up not having to take them along. "But that came close to being my only option," she said.

There was still more bad news to deal with, however. The family learned that Jeff Zelasko's son Zacharia, who turned 1 a few weeks ago, has a genetic deformity known as hemi-vertebrae. There is an extra bone at the base of his spine.

Zelasko said the condition might not affect anything and he will grow up normally, or it could mean bone-fusion surgery, or it could lead to paralysis from the waist down.

So what got Zelasko through all this?

"The greatest asset in Jeanne's life is her sense of humor," her husband said.

In fact, her brother Jeff was the target of that sense of humor during those tense days.

"Jeff was the one who was always calling with the bad news," Zelasko said, "so I started calling him the Grim Reaper."

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larry.stewart@latimes.com

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