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Alex Trebek Diagnosis Brings Attention to Pancreatic Cancer

Here are the basics of the disease, including risk factors and survival rates

By Edie Grossfield

Alex Trebek, the longtime host of the TV game show Jeopardy, announced Wednesday that he has stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic Cancer
Alex Trebek  |  Credit: PBS NewsHour |REUTERS | Danny Moloshok

In his announcement, Trebek, 78, said he realized the prognosis for the disease is “not very encouraging, but I’m going to fight this and I’m going to 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 low survival rate statistics for this disease.” Next Avenue thought readers might want to know more about pancreatic cancer which led to the deaths of Steve Jobs, Aretha Franklin and Patrick Swayze:

What is pancreatic cancer?

The pancreas is a gland in the abdomen, between the stomach and the spine, that produces enzymes to aid in digestion and hormones for controlling blood sugar levels. Pancreatic cancer begins when the cells that make up the gland divide and grow out of control, forming a malignant tumor.

Stage 4 means the cancer has spread from the pancreas to other parts of the body, such as the lungs, liver or the peritoneal cavity, which holds most of the abdomen’s organs.

What are the survival rates for pancreatic cancer?

Survival rates are based on data collected by the National Cancer Institute, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, and depend on whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. The institute’s database tracks five-year relative survival rates. Based on people diagnosed between 2008 and 2014, these are the five-year relative survival rates:

  • Localized pancreatic cancer (hasn’t spread): 34 percent
  • Regional (spread to nearby areas): 12 percent
  • Distant (spread to distant parts of the body, like lungs, liver or bones): 3 percent

How many people get pancreatic cancer in the U.S.?

In 2018, there were more than 55,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer in the U.S. and over 44,000 Americans died from it, according to the National Cancer Institute. More than 56,000 Americans are expected to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2019, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting the disease.

What are risk factors?

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It is unknown exactly what causes pancreatic cancer to develop, but these are risk factors, according to the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society:

  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Excessive exposure to certain chemicals used in the dry cleaning and metal working industries
  • Personal history of diabetes or chronic pancreatitis (swelling of the pancreas)
  • Family history of pancreatic cancer or pancreatitis
  • Certain hereditary conditions
  • Age — risk increases with age and almost all pancreatic cancer patients are older than 45
  • Gender — men are slightly more likely to develop the disease than women
  • Race — African Americans are slightly more likely to develop it than whites

What are the signs and symptoms?

Pancreatic cancer is difficult to diagnose early because of where the gland is located in the abdomen (behind other organs) and because there are no noticeable signs or symptoms in the early stages. Also, the signs and symptoms are similar to those of many other illnesses. The National Cancer Institute recommends checking with your doctor if you experience any of the following:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
  • Light-colored stools
  • Dark urine
  • Pain in the upper or middle abdomen and back
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feeling very tired

What are treatment options?

Depending on the type of pancreatic cancer — exocrine or endocrine — and what stage it is in, treatments include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, chemoradiation therapy and targeted therapy.

Photograph of Edie Grossfield
Edie Grossfieldis the former health and caregiving editor at Next Avenue, where she reported on the information people need to make sound decisions about caregiving, their health and the health of their loved ones. Read More
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