How Alex Trebek once saved his sister’s life

As fans and celebrities take to social media to remember the late Alex Trebek, who passed away on Nov. 8, 2020 at age 80, many used this moment to praise the Jeopardy! host’s transparency during his public battle with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Since revealing his cancer diagnosis in March 2019, Trebek offered regular updates about his prognosis, knowing that his millions of viewers often considered him family, as they welcomed him into their living rooms each weeknight. However, few might know that Trebek’s sister, Barbara, also passed away after her own fight against cancer.

In his 2020 memoir The Answer Is…, Trebek wrote about his late sister’s death from breast cancer at age 65. “My sister, Barbara, died in 2007 of breast cancer,” Trebek wrote (via CheatSheet). “She married the boyfriend she’d moved to Los Angeles for. Then they got divorced and she married the man next door.” Trebek continued, “I was at her bedside when she passed. My mother was there, and so was Barbara’s husband. I turned to my mom and said, ‘Barbara’s gone.'”

In an interview with Radar Online in 2019, Barbara’s husband, Barton Holcomb, noted that these cancer diagnoses might have been inevitable, as Trebek and his sister grew up in Sudbury, the Canadian nickel mining town, where “there was a high rate of cancer among people in the area, including their relatives.” Yet, while their childhood might have ultimately caused their illnesses, Barbara would have died long ago had it not been for her brother’s constant forethought and protection.

Alex Trebek sacrificed his health to save his sister's life

Although game show host Alex Trebek and his sister Barbara were only about one year apart in age, the TV star took his role as her protective older brother quite seriously. In his book The Answer Is…, Trebek detailed one instance where he almost gave his own life to save hers.

“She looked to me for protection even when we were young,” Trebek wrote (via CheatSheet). “There was this one time, when we were living at my grandmother’s house. I guess Barbara was five and I was 7. She was playing on a partially frozen river near the house.” That’s when Trebek intervened and chased Barbara and her friends away from the water. “‘This is dangerous,'” I said. “‘You can’t do this. I’ll test the ice for you.’ I tested the ice; it cracked, and I fell in.” Trebek fell in the icy waters and, because he swam in the wrong direction, Trebek did not escape the frigid river until a railway worker helped him out on the other side. Trebek then had to walk home wet and “near frozen to death.”

“That was the beginning of about 12 years of terrible rheumatism — rheumatic pain behind my knees,” he noted. “I used to wake up crying in the night, and my mother or dad would get up and rub my legs with Sloan’s liniment.” But, even as he battled pancreatic cancer, Trebek never would’ve described himself as courageous. “Courage is a conscious decision. You do it in a dangerous situation, when you have a choice,” he added. “Here, there’s no choice.” His fans, however, would surely disagree, as his honesty demonstrated true bravery in the face of insurmountable odds.

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