“I need to figure out how to get some ice in my veins.”
So typed Christine Whelchel, a mom and church organist from Spring Hill, Tenn., in a January 2021 Facebook post. She’d just competed on a trivia podcast, and felt she had not done well.
Normally, this would be no big deal. But Whelchel was a devout “Jeopardy!” fan, and she badly wanted to get on the show. We had met at an exceptionally nerdy trivia convention a little over a year before, gotten clobbered by champions of said show and taken the “Jeopardy!” screening test.
Facebook and/or the universe delivered—but not in the way anyone expected.
Whelchel thought her toughest moments of the year would be COVID-19 bounding through her family before vaccines were created. But a few months later, she found out she had breast cancer.
“For five days, I thought I was going to die. ‘My husband’s gonna have to raise these four kids without me,’” she recalls. “I heard the words ‘invasive ductal carcinoma,’ and I fell apart.”
She sobbed on the phone when the oncology scheduler called, but luckily lost her grim wager against herself. The office told her, “This is the kind of cancer you want to have—when you die, it will be from something else.”
“Once I figured out I wasn’t going to die, I was able to continue functioning,” she explains. “I saw that my year was up since I had last taken the ‘Jeopardy!’ test, and in March I got the invitation to take a Zoom test.”
Her physicians, Dr. Laura Baskin and Dr. Julie Means, worked quickly. Whelchel coped with the stress by putting full trust in her doctors. Baskin was blunt about the size of Whelchel’s tumor and the deep location. A mastectomy was recommended and scheduled for July. But the cancer got control of the board again; more in-depth analysis on Whelchel’s tissue meant she needed chemotherapy, too. Meanwhile, there was something else on Whelchel’s schedule.
“I got the invitation to interview and [mock]play the game,” she says.
“Jeopardy!” coordinators wanted to see her in May—the same week of her double mastectomy.
Surgery was on Wednesday. Pre-op was on Monday. Whelchel scheduled her audition, her third go at the show, for Tuesday.
Prep served as a nice distraction. Whelchel ran through what she wanted to say in the interview, consulted with Zoom friends about the angle of her chair and picked out her clothes. Other than a dramatic retractable pen malfunction (Whelchel wanted to mimic the buzzer with the click), it went pretty well, she thought.
The chestnut hair went. Whelchel struggled to sleep. Still, she was pleased with how personalized her care was. “The light bulb went on. This is what breast cancer research is about. It’s for figuring out the best treatment protocols for everyone because no two cancers are exactly alike,” she says.
And things were clicking. In August, as chemo was wrapping up and her chance of recurrence was down to about five percent from 29 percent, she found herself enrolling in community college music theory class.
Years before, a course in theory had left her shaken and unsure she belonged on the music major podium. She graduated with a different degree. As she raised her kids and taught piano, thoughts of returning for her degree appeared periodically, though she had not buzzed in. Wasn’t that sheer vanity at this point, racking up tuition bills and adding a commute while raising kids?
That, though, was before cancer. “Having gone through those days where I thought I was going to die, I just wanted to go for this thing that had been looming over my adult life. We really don’t know how much time we have,” Whelchel says.
She loved her new theory course.
That November, she auditioned for the bachelor’s in piano performance at Middle Tennessee State University. She thought getting “The Call” from the contestant coordinators at “Jeopardy!” was a feeling that couldn’t be beat. But around Thanksgiving, she got a letter from the director of graduate studies. If she added four classes to her planned schedule, she’d graduate with a master’s in piano.
Whelchel flew to California, jubilant. “That news eclipsed ‘Jeopardy!’ I’ve been wanting a music degree way longer,” she says.
She taped the show on the lot in Culver City and met up with Zoom trivia friends. The rest can be found splashed across every major news website.
Whelchel broke the internet twice: once, when she won a tiebreaker caused by her forgetting to add a dollar to her “Final Jeopardy” bet; and again, when, after barreling through three wins in February 2022, she appeared on television without her blond wig.
‘Jeopardy!’ tapes five episodes per day, and Whelchel’s was the last tape day before Christmas. Unbeknownst to her friends, she had secretly flown back in January to keep taping and had time to think about how she wanted to show up as a cancer survivor, and how comfortable she wanted her head to be.
“I’d had a lot of cultural conditioning growing up as a girl in the South. There’s a lot of pressure being a woman on TV, and this was my one time on national television; I wanted to be as pretty as possible,” she shares.
She instinctively felt it was the right time. “I never truly felt the wig was me,” she reveals. Whelchel felt eyes were on her during her flight to Los Angeles, but she didn’t change her mind. Host Ken Jennings pointed out the difference.
“I want to normalize what going through cancer recovery really looks like,” she said, her words ringing throughout the country to a groundswell of rallying support online.
So, the question: Did being a survivor put ice in her veins?
“I don’t know. Maybe going through some really scary stuff, on some level it maybe toughened me up. I’ll be processing the entire experience for a long time,” Whelchel says. “The ‘Jeopardy!’ experience was hard on me. I lost two pounds that week despite eating burgers and fries.”
Evidently, all those calories were burned by her trembling at the podium during her games, so severe she had to sit in between gameplay.
“This is kind of a wild theory. It was basically that my body had to process my anxiety. It couldn’t be my brain, because my brain had to play the game,” she says. “I had to push the nerves into my body so I could play. My body has shaken before when I went in for my second C-section. I was more scared the second time.”
And the universe had acted in other ways, too. Whelchel’s tape date wasn’t her original date—that was Oct. 12. But she had her breast reconstruction scheduled that week, and she wanted to stick to her plan of listening to doctors. The coordinators agreed to call her back.
One month later, everyone who taped on Oct. 12 lost to Amy Schneider, who would complete the second-longest winning streak in “Jeopardy!” history.