Jeopardy! host Trebek’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis – Should you be tested?

Alex Trebek, told his Jeopardy! audience that he was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer saying: “I plan to beat the survival statistics of this disease.” IU Health oncologist Dr. Michael G. House, who has treated countless patients, talks about the risks.

He’s been a popular game show host for 35 years. Millions of families have grown up sharing their entertainment room with Alex Trebek as part of a nightly TV-watching ritual. So when Trebek announced to his audience that he has been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, they tuned in; they listened.

And once again, they were reminded what has been said many times over: “Cancer doesn’t discriminate.”

Trebek’s diagnosis is one shared by many well-known names:  Michael Landon, Patrick Swayze, Steve Jobs, Joe Jackson and Luciano Pavarotti, and the “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin – all lost their battles with pancreatic cancer.

“Now normally the prognosis is not very encouraging but I’m going to fight this and keep working and with the love and support of my family and friends and with the help of your prayers also I plan to beat the whole survival statistics for this disease,” said Trebek, 78.

Pancreatic cancer starts when malignant cells form in tissues of the pancreas – a gland located behind the stomach, in front of the spine. The pancreas is responsible for producing digestive juices and hormones that regulate blood sugar.  A Stage 4 diagnoses typically means the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. The American Cancer Society relies on the SEER (Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results) database maintained by the National Cancer Institute to report statistics about pancreatic cancer patients and survival rates. They report that for patients with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer the five-year survival rate is 3%.

“Unfortunately, we do not have a reliable routine screening test to detect early stage pancreatic cancer,” said IU Health Dr. Michael G. House. He can’t speak specifically about Alex Trebek’s diagnosis. Dr. House has treated countless patients at IU Health and is well known for performing the Pancreaticoduodenectomy (commonly called the Whipple procedure), surgery to remove the head of the pancreas, gallbladder, and bile duct, as well as portions of the small intestine.

“Individuals who are recognized to be at higher risk for developing pancreatic cancer during their lifetime, including those with two primary relatives with pancreatic cancer or those with established hereditary cancer syndromes, should undergo pancreatic cancer screening beginning 10 years before the youngest age of a family member diagnosed with pancreatic cancer,” said Dr. House.

Research suggests that the risk of developing pancreatic cancer increases with age. Most people who develop pancreatic cancer are older than 45. According to the American Cancer Society about 90 percent of those diagnosed are older than 55 and 70 percent are older than 65. Of the more than 55,000 adults in the US who develop pancreatic cancer, more than 29,000 are men and more than 26,000 are women.

“Depending on where the cancer arises within the pancreas, symptoms may vary,” said Dr. House.  “The most common symptoms are abdominal or back pain, unexplained weight loss, nausea, and jaundice. New onset diabetes mellitus without obvious risk factors for this disease may be another sign of pancreatic cancer. Treatment for pancreatic will depend on the stage of cancer and may include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.”

— By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
   Reach Banes via email
   Photo: Peabody Awards [CC BY 2.0]