Alex Trebek turned 79 this Monday. The beloved “Jeopardy!” host has been an American icon ever since he began hosting the game show 35 years ago. Now, he is a cancer survivor, too — and has been quite public as he’s talked about his pancreatic cancer diagnosis and the treatment he’s receiving.
Fans all over are taking to social media to wish the television host a happy birthday today. The birthday wishes and hopes of “many more birthdays to come” take on an even more earnest meaning in light of Trebek’s ongoing battle with stage IV pancreatic cancer—a cancer with a notoriously grim prognosis.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Alex Trebek turns 79 today. ???? As of his last update, the game show host seemed upbeat about his battle with pancreatic cancer.READ MOREMORE: https://t.co/Nos23dKqbo pic.twitter.com/yoAi7v5gFT
— FOX 29 (@FOX29philly) July 22, 2019
When Trebek announced his diagnosis in March, there was a question as to whether he would live to his 79th birthday at all. Most people with stage IV pancreatic cancer live only 3-6 months, and only three percent of them live for five years.
It has now been four months since Trebek announced his diagnosis, though, and in recent months, the star has shared in interviews with the media that he is doing quite well with his treatment. In late May, for instance, Trebek told People that chemotherapy had shrunken his tumors a “mind-boggling” amount.
The interview came shortly after Trebek had shared with the Canadian Broadcast Corporation that if his cancer responded well enough to chemotherapy, he could be a candidate for a cutting-edge immunotherapy treatment, which would empower his body’s own immune system to fight his cancer.
This game show host is celebrating his 79 birthday today. He has hosted Jeopardy! Since 1984, he has hosted High Rollers, Double Dare and others. He was born in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada and is kicking cancer’s butt.
What is Alex Trebek?
Happy birthday Alex! pic.twitter.com/q8C2HiF6GW
— Chrissy (@PerryJuDo4ever) July 22, 2019
Trebek has not shared specifics about his cancer treatment since, but if he has indeed been able to move forward with immunotherapy treatment, it is likely thanks to a specific genetic characteristic of his pancreatic cancer, which would make him one of the very few pancreatic cancer patients eligible for currently approved immunotherapy drugs. One such drug is pembrolizumab—known by its brand name, Keytruda—which is approved to treat solid tumors, including pancreatic cancer tumors, with something called “dMMR” or “MSI-high” status. Only one-to-three percent of pancreatic cancers have these characteristics.
— ABC7 Eyewitness News (@ABC7) July 22, 2019
Why Is Pancreatic Cancer So Difficult to Treat?
Each year, 55,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and 44,000 people die of the disease, according to the Cancer Research Institute. The poor prognosis is partially due to the fact that pancreatic cancer is exceedingly difficult to diagnose at early stages, before it has spread beyond the pancreas. Often, early-stage pancreatic cancer shows no symptoms. Dr. Allyson Ocean, a medical oncologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, also previously explained to SurvivorNet that because pancreatic cancer tumors are surrounded by a barrier called a “stromal tissue” standard treatments that work in other cancers—such as chemotherapy and radiation—can have a hard time penetrating through the stromal tissue and attacking the cancer.
Because standard cancer treatments have had little success in treating pancreatic cancers, researchers are actively working to develop new drugs for the disease. The Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, for instance, is working on combining immunotherapy drugs with chemotherapy, and early clinical trial results that the Parker Institute presented in late March suggested that this approach could work better than treatment with chemo or immunotherapy alone.
“The study is combining two immunotherapy drugs with frontline standard chemotherapy, and we’re seeing response rates that are significantly better than what was published with other chemotherapies alone,” Dr. Ocean told SurvivorNet when the results of the early-phase study were announced.
“The other important takeaway of the trial is that many of the patients that did get a response, the response lasted for a very long time,” Dr. Ocean had explained. “I think it was ten months or more, which is a long time in this disease [relative to the average survival rates].”
How is Alex Trebek Holding Up?
Alex Trebek has kept up a remarkably positive attitude in the wake of his diagnosis, and has consistently expressed gratitude for the support he’s received from his wife, Jean Currivan Trebek.
He’s been open, however, about the intense physical pain that his cancer has caused him, and the fact that chemo has been challenging.
Trebek is now taking a break from work and is eschewing media attention as he deals with his cancer. (He has signed a contract to host Jeopardy! through 2022, but the show is in the middle of a filming break at the moment). In April, Trebek also took a big step to simplify his financial life in the wake of his diagnosis—as many people do following a diagnosis—and decided to sell his vacation house in Paso Robles, California.
Trebek is One Birthday Closer to His Goal: Living to 100
As Trebek’s fans are wishing the beloved “Jeopardy!” host a happy birthday today—and hoping this birthday won’t be his last—they might find it uplifting to revisit Trebek’s keynote speech at the May 4 Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s PanCAN Purple Strides walk in Los Angeles.
Pointing to another speaker, woman named Angie who has survived pancreatic cancer for 22 years, Trebek said, “I promise you this: That if I become a 22-year survivor, you will all be welcomed at my 100th birthday.”