Educating About Pancreatic Cancer
- Former Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in March 2019, and passed away from the disease in November 2020 at the age of 80.
- His family has continued his legacy of raising awareness for pancreatic cancer by working to raise funds for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.
- Pancreatic cancer is an aggressive disease that is difficult to detect because symptoms – including jaundice and weight loss – typically present at a later stage in the cancer’s development.
Trebek passed away at 80 years old on Nov. 8, 2020, after a hard-fought battle with stage four pancreatic cancer. And though our evenings without the iconic TV host have not been the same since, his legacy of raising awareness for the disease has continued with the help of his wife, Jean, 58, and children Emily, Nicky and Matthew.Read More
“It’s a little bittersweet because this was the disease that took Alex’s human life,” Jean told PEOPLE at PanCAN’s Purple Stride Walk & Run at the Los Angeles Zoo. “But, I also know what it pulled from him. His courage, his strength and that was what Alex, I know, wants to be remembered for.”
According to PEOPLE, Nicky, Trebek’s eldest daughter, has raised almost $40,000 for the charity to date.
“I promised that I would be involved with PanCAN and try to make a difference and impact with them,” Nicky said. “I plan to do this every year. I plan to do a Team Nicky every year.”
And the PanCAN is very appreciative of everything Trebek and his family has done for them and pancreatic cancer warriors everywhere.
“We saw a tremendous spike in people coming to our website around [Trebek announcing his cancer diagnosis],” Julie Fleshman, president and CEO of Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN), previously told SurvivorNet. “People called into our patient services program which I always think is one of the most important results. People were calling us to get information and resources. We saw a significant impact in numbers across the board.”
In addition, Nicky has worked to keep her father’s memory alive by being involved with the show that made him famous and supporting another nonprofit close to his heart.
“One of the other things I try to do to keep his legacy alive is I worked on Jeopardy!, so I’m close with the Jeopardy! family and the Sony family,” Nicky said. “Also, Hope of the Valley was another thing that was very close to dad’s heart and still close to Jean’s heart.
“The Trebek Center’s going to be opening with 107 beds for homeless people all over the San Fernando Valley. That was something that he really, really wanted to see come to fruition. So I have some friends that want to work at the Trebek Center. I’m trying to get everybody jobs there. That’s how I’m sort of trying to continue his legacy.”
Alex Trebek’s Cancer Battle
Trebek died of pancreatic cancer after a year and a half of battling the disease. Pancreatic cancer is an aggressive form of cancer. Thankfully, Alex Trebek’s family has made it their mission to educate and fundraise.And while some celebrities choose to keep their cancer battles private, Trebek openly spoke about his treatment process with the public, and in doing so, educated millions on the disease. While hosting an episode of Jeopardy! in March 2019, Trebek shared with fans that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, and would immediately start pursuing treatment.
Despite the difficult journey, he remained the host of the TV trivia show and would keep viewers up to date on his progress periodically. Currently, the one-year survival rate of pancreatic cancer is just 18%, but in June 2020 he made a special announcement that he’s “beating the odds” by surpassing the one-year-survival rate.
In addition to sharing good news, Trebek was also extremely open about the side-effects he experienced as a result of chemotherapy, and how it affected his mental state significantly at times. He later turned to an experimental therapy developed by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong which attempts to use multiple parts of the immune system to destroy tumors.
Challenges to Screening for Pancreatic Cancer
Trebek’s transparency made a huge impact in educating the public on pancreatic cancer, and made people more vigilant in spotting symptoms early.
In fact, one Jeopardy! viewer says Trebek “saved his life” when the TV show host shared symptoms he experienced before his diagnosis, and the viewer realized he was also experiencing these symptoms. As a result, the viewer’s pancreatic cancer was caught at an early and treatable stage.
Pancreatic Cancer Detection
Pancreatic cancer is an aggressive disease that is difficult to detect because symptoms – including jaundice and weight loss – typically present at a later stage in the cancer’s development. In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, Dr. Anirban Maitra, the co-leader of the Pancreatic Cancer Moon Shot at MD Anderson Cancer Center, explains what he typically sees when patients develop this disease.
“Because the pancreas is inside the abdomen often doesn’t have symptoms that would tell you that something is wrong with your pancreas,” he says. “By the time individuals walk into the clinic with symptoms like jaundice, weight loss, back pain or diabetes, it’s often very late in the stage of the disease.”
Parents, siblings and children of someone with pancreatic cancer are considered high risk for developing the disease because they are first-degree relatives of the individual. PGVs (pathogenic germline variants) are changes in reproductive cells (sperm or egg) that become part of the DNA in the cells of the offspring. Germline variants are passed from parents to their children, and are associated with increased risks of several cancer types, including pancreatic, ovarian and breast cancers. Germline mutations in ATM, BRCA1, BRCA2, CKDN2A, PALB2, PRSS1, STK11 and TP53 are associated with increased risk of pancreatic cancer.
Jessica Everett, a genetic counselor at NYU Langone’s Perlmutter Cancer Center, encourages people in this category to look into possible screening options.
“If you’re concerned about pancreatic cancer in your family, start by talking to a genetic counselor to learn more about your risk and what options you have,” Everett said.
Contributing: Shelby Black