Alex Trebek, 80, reveals in his memoir that he isn’t the first person in his family to face a difficult cancer diagnosis. His sister, Barbara was diagnosed with breast cancer and died from the disease in 2007 at age 65.
“I was at her bedside when she passed,” Trebek writes in his memoir, The Answer Is…Reflections On My Life. “My mother was there and so was Barbara’s husband. I turned to my mom and said, “Barbara’s gone.”Read More
“Yeah. I said, she just went.”
“No Unfinished Business”
“I was also with my mom when she died a few years later. She was 95,” Trebek shares. “I think of Mom and Dad and Barbara often. Sure there are sad moments. But I never think of them and say, “I wish we had resolved this or resolved that,” Trebek notes, making peace with his loss.
“There was no unfinished business. It’s all good stuff.”
Barbara Trebek’s Breast Cancer
The Trebek family was “cursed” with their cancer diagnoses, Barbara’s former husband, Barton Holcomb, told Radar Online in a 2019 interview. “Barbara had been battling different forms of cancer for years even before we met,” Holcomb said. She had undergone a double mastectomy but, says Holcomb, “in the end, her cancer had spread and there was nothing doctors could do.”
“I feel for Alex’s wife and kids because I know firsthand what they’re going through,” he said. “Cancer is a relentless enemy that doesn’t give up easily.”But, Holcomb added, “if anyone can beat pancreatic cancer, Alex can. He has the fortitude and stamina. I don’t see Alex giving up!”
A Genetic Link? BRCA And Pancreatic Cancer
We do not know if Alex Trebek’s stage 4 pancreatic cancer — or Barbara Trebek’s breast cancer — was derived from an inherited gene but, according to The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN), about 5 to 10 percent of pancreatic cases are thought to be hereditary.
Dr. Anirban Maitra, co-leader of the Pancreatic Cancer Moon Shoot at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, on the challenges of screening for pancreatic cancer.
The BRCA gene mutation, which is known for greatly increasing the risk of breast cancer in both men and women, also increases a person’s lifetime risk of developing pancreatic cancer, according to PanCAN. In addition, the group says, “evidence suggests that cancer cells with BRCA mutations may respond particularly well to a certain type of chemotherapy as well as a targeted therapy called PARP inhibition.”
What are PARP Inhibitors?
PARP inhibitors work by preventing cancer cells that have been damaged — often during the course of chemotherapy — from naturally healing themselves, and have shown significant promise in treating ovarian cancer and breast cancer.
In June of 2019, the PARP inhibitor, Lynparza ((generic name: olaparib), was cleared for use in pancreatic cancer by the Food and Drug Administration and it could make a major difference in reducing disease progression for some people with advanced pancreatic cancer, according to evidence from the POLO trial, presented at the annual American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting that month.
The approval provides a much-needed option for patients with pancreatic cancers that have mutations of the BRCA gene.
One caveat is that the chance of experiencing side effects was much higher for those given Lynzpara (40%) than it was for those who were just treated with the chemo followed by a placebo (20%). The severity depends on the individual and the cancer, but often, the side effects for PARP inhibitors include anemia, gastrointestinal discomfort like nausea and vomiting, and fatigue.
The Future of Pancreatic Cancer
One of the reasons pancreatic cancer is particularly difficult to treat is because it is often diagnosed in advanced stages. The disease often presents no symptoms in early stages, so only about 20% of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are even eligible to undergo surgery to try and remove the disease. So, any developments in treating advanced disease are cause for celebration in the pancreatic cancer community.
Dr. Anirban Maitra of MD Anderson Cancer Center explains why diagnosing pancreatic cancer early is crucial
“Each year in the United States about 53,000 patients get pancreatic cancer, and unfortunately, most will die from this disease within a few months to a year or so from the diagnosis,” Dr. Anirban Maitra, co-leader of the Pancreatic Cancer Moon Shot at MD Anderson Cancer Center told SurvivorNet.
“The reason for that is that most individuals, about 80%, will actually present with what we call advanced disease — which means that the cancer has either spread beyond the pancreas or into other organs like the liver,” he explained. “Of course, this has an impact on the prognosis of the disease because patients who have advanced disease, the treatments that we have available for them, they work somewhat, but they don’t really do as well as we would like for them to.”
While pancreatic cancer is the only major cancer with a five-year survival rate under 10%, there have been promising advances in recent years.
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.