Alex Trebek expressed optimism and hope about his battle with pancreatic cancer on Saturday when he told a benefit event that he’s drawing strength from the inspiring stories of other pancreatic cancer survivors.
The beloved “Jeopardy” host was the keynote speaker at the Los Angeles Zoo’s Pancreatic Cancer Action Network walk, which raised money for research into the disease.READ MORE
“As you all know, survivorship is measured starting from the date you are diagnosed with cancer and on that scale, my gosh, I’m a 62-day survivor. Give me a break,” Trebek said in footage obtained by TMZ. “But I’m working on it. And I promise you this: That if I become a 22-year survivor, you will all be welcomed at my 100th birthday.”
The American Cancer Society estimates that about 56,770 people in the United States will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year alone, and that 45,750 people will die of the disease. The 5-year survival rate for people with pancreatic cancer is 9%.
Trebek, who’s revealed he has advanced, stage IV pancreatic cancer, is now in a difficult fight. The cancer is difficult to detect early and is usually only diagnosed at an advanced stage. “It is true that it’s still the minority of patients that are cured with pancreas cancer, and certainly if it’s already metastatic, our options are limited,” Dr. Daniel Labow, Chair of Surgery at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s and Mount Sinai West, told SurvivorNet after Trebek was diagnosed. Dr. Labow did say, however, that there are now newer chemotherapies and newer approaches that can be implemented.
At the zoo event on Saturday, Trebek said, “If I can get in a plug for my show, all of you guys here have done what Jeopardy! James [Holzhauer] has done on our television show and that is, in terms of fundraising, you have exceeded expectations.”
Trebek was referencing much-discussed “Jeopardy” contestant James Holzhauer, who’s now won $1,608,627.
Trebek has been very public about his cancer battle. He recently appeared live on “Good Morning America” and spoke with co-host Robin Roberts, a breast-cancer survivor who’s also been remarkably public about her cancer journey.
“People all over America have been sharing their good thoughts, their advice, their prayers. And I feel it is making a difference in my well-being,” he said.
Trebek gave Roberts some details about the status of his cancer. He said that even though he’s not always feeling that great, his oncologist said he is “doing well”.
“I’ve had kidney stones, I’ve had ruptured discs, so I’m used to dealing with pain, but what I’m not used to dealing with is the surges that come on suddenly of deep, deep sadness, and it brings tears to my eyes,” he admitted.
“I’ve discovered in this whole episode, ladies and gentlemen, that I’m a bit of a wuss. But I’m fighting through it. My platelets, my blood counts are steady, my weight is steady … the cancer indicators – those are coming down. I’ve got another chemo next week and then we’ll do a review to find out where things stand,” Trebek said.
Trebek does have real options for treatment. “It is a serious cancer, but the diagnosis itself does not mean there are no options,” says Dr. Daniel Labow, Chair of Surgery at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s and Mount Sinai West and Assistant Chief of Surgical Oncology, told SurvivorNet after Trebek announced his diagnosis (Labow does not know the details of Trebek’s case). “Newer chemotherapies and newer approaches have allowed us to treat pancreas cancer and cure patients with that. We have better options today, and certainly with the new surgical techniques and some of the new chemotherapy agents, we are making slow progress,” says Dr. Labow.
“The treatment options for pancreatic cancer include chemotherapy, surgery, radiation therapy, clinical trials,” says Dr. Allyson Ocean, Medical Oncologist at Weill Cornell Medical Center.
“The pancreas in our body has two functions,” says Dr. Ocean. “It secretes enzymes that help us digest our food and it also secretes insulin which helps us manage sugar in our body. So that’s why diabetes sometimes can happen as a symptom because the cancer is growing in the pancreas, affecting the insulin, and patients get diabetic, and this is because a cancer is developing. And then, unfortunately the cancer is diagnosed very late because it’s been growing slowly inside, silently, in the person.”
The greatest difficulty with pancreatic cancer is the solid tumors. “It is the solid tumor cancer that has the worst prognosis. It is right now the third leading cause of cancer death, soon to be the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States,” says Dr. Ocean. “Mortality is rising because it is caught so late and we don’t have enough effective medications against the cancer.”
“The cancer cells are surrounded by what is called a stroma, and the stroma serves as a barrier for medications to get in to the cancer to kill it,” says Dr. Ocean. Stroma is tissue that surrounds the cancer tumor. “So chemotherapies have a hard time getting in, radiation has a hard time penetrating. Think of pancreatic cancer as an oatmeal raisin cookie and the raisins are actually the cancer cells, and the cookie part is actually all the stroma around it. And imagine having to navigate through all that stroma for a treatment to be able to get into a cell to kill it. So that’s why the treatments just really aren’t good enough to penetrate the cancer. But we’re improving, we’re getting better treatments.”
There has also been a lot of progress in surgery for pancreatic cancer. “One of the things that we now understand is the anatomy of the pancreas and how we can treat it surgically. An operation that used to take eight or ten hours, and people would be in the hospital for two to three weeks, now we can do even robotically or minimally invasively,” says Dr. Labow.
“Or even if we don’t do it like that, patients leave the hospital in five to six days, and can recover and have totally normal lives, based on techniques, the understanding how we need to approach the patient,” says Dr. Labow. “So having pancreas surgery doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have any limitations on what you can eat or drink.”
It’s even possible to get back to a normal life post surgery. “It doesn’t make you diabetic automatically, since the pancreas is also involved in that, and people can lead complete—live completely normal lives,” says Dr. Labow.