Jean Trebek, 56, first noticed something was “off” about Alex Trebek’s health on a December 2018 trip with their children, Matt and Emily.
“We’d gone to Israel to visit the sites of the Holy Land,” she told Guideposts in a recent interview. After dinner one night, she noticed his “coloring seemed off.” She recalls asking her husband, ‘You feeling okay?'”Read More
“We Didn’t Know What We Didn’t Know”
Both stomach (or back) pain and yellowing of the skin due to jaundice are early signs of pancreatic cancer, according to the Pancreatic Action Network (PanCAN). Other symptoms include bloating, unexplained weight loss, digestive trouble, and sudden-onset diabetes — or changes in an existing diabetes condition.
Once home in California, Trebek went for some tests before the couple left on a planned trip to New York. “It was there, in our hotel, that we got a call from his doctor.”
Early detection is crucial in pancreatic cancer, says Dr. Anirban Maitra, co-leader of the Pancreatic Cancer Moon Shot at MD Anderson Cancer Center: “This has an impact on the prognosis of the disease.”
“We need to see you as soon as you get back from your trip,” the doctor told Trebek. “We have some concerns.”
“What did that mean?” she wondered. “I pulled my mind back from the fear that was welling inside me. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. I wouldn’t let myself jump to conclusions. But I knew Alex was thinking what I was thinking.”
They cut their New York trip short, returning to Los Angeles where Trebek underwent a CT scan at Cedars-Sinai. “The doctor called back within hours,” she said. “We went back and got the news. Pancreatic cancer with a tumor that had spread to the soft lining of his stomach. Stage 4.”
“It felt as if the bottom dropped out of my world.”
The Tragedy That Changed Her Life
Jean Currivan grew up on Long Island in a “tight-knit Catholic family.” The middle child, she has a younger sister, Audrey. Her brother, Chris, was a year and a half older. “We were inseparable,” she said of Chris, “Like Frick and Frack, my mom said.”
Chris had been born with water on the brain, a condition known as hydrocephalus. Back then, Jean told Guideposts, less was known about treating the condition. Chris faced developmental delays and his health was fragile. “I took a lot of responsibility for him. I took care of my brother,” she said. “I thought it was a blessing.”
Tragedy struck years later, when Jean was a sophomore at Pepperdine. She was on the phone with her mother when there was a knock at the door. “The next thing I heard was a terrible scream. Mom’s scream. The man got on the line. He said he was a police officer,“ Jean explained. “’There’s been a car accident,’” he said, ‘and your brother was killed.’ That day, December 7, 1984, was “the worst day of my life,” she said.
How They Met
After college, she took a part-time job doing bookkeeping on Saturdays for a client who lived in Malibu. “Alex was my boss’s buddy. He’d come over every Saturday to play backgammon and have lunch. I knew that he was on some TV show, but he never said much about it and I didn’t ask.”
While Jean Currivan didn’t know much about Alex Trebek, her mother certainly did. “One day I called my mom back on Long Island and told her I’d met this nice guy, Alex Trebek,” she shared. “‘Don’t you know who he is?’ she said. ‘He’s the host of that game show Jeopardy!'”
“We Need To Get You On Chemo”
Now, almost 35 years after the death of her brother, Jean said, as she faced the news of her husband’s diagnosis, “all the terrible pain and loss I’d felt at Chris’s death came back. I couldn’t imagine my life without him. Could I accept this diagnosis? Could my faith sustain me now? Could I be strong for Alex and myself?”
“I looked over at Alex. How would he manage? Right away he exhibited that same strength he’d always had, that steadiness and calm I drew from him,” she explained. “His attitude wasn’t ‘Why me?’ but much more “Okay, what do we do?'”
Survivor George Crawford, 81, shares advice for anyone facing a cancer diagnosis. “If I can do it,” he says, “you can do it.”
“’We need to get you on chemo,’ said the doctor, ‘to stop the cancer from spreading.’ That was the first protocol. Alex would start right away. Once a week, I would take him to his appointment. I’d sit with him and then drive him back home.
“No matter how resilient you are,” Jean said, “cancer has a way of making you feel truly vulnerable. Alex and I needed each other more than ever.”
With cancer comes a feeling of vulnerability, says Dr. William Breitbart, the chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Services at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
“More than a year and a half later, we’re still at it,” Jean added. “Every day a gift.”
Advances In Pancreatic Cancer
When Trebek reached the one-year survival mark in March, PanCAN announced new research that found pancreatic cancer patients who receive precision medicine — a treatment tailored to an individual patient and their tumor — live an average of one year longer than those who do not. This is the first study to demonstrate an overall survival benefit from precision medicine in pancreatic cancer patients. Other advances:
- In December, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a new approval of the targeted therapy Lynparza® (olaparib) for the treatment of germline BRCA-mutated metastatic pancreatic cancer patients – the first pancreatic cancer (adenocarcinoma)-specific approval in more than four years.
- And Congress created a dedicated $6 million pancreatic cancer research program through the Department of Defense’s (DoD) Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program (CDMRP). This is the first time that pancreatic cancer has had a dedicated funding program at the DoD specifically for innovative, high-impact research to accelerate discoveries of new treatments and early detection strategies.
- In January, the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer hit 10% – the first time ever this statistic has been reported in the double digits.
Know Your Tumor to Customize Treatment
Because every pancreatic cancer patient – and every tumor – is unique, PanCAN recommends that all pancreatic cancer patients undergo testing of both their tumor tissue along with blood and saliva to identify individual treatment options for that patient.
The organization offers a free Know Your Tumor precision medicine service as well as free, personalized resources on the disease.