- Alex Trebek, who has been the host of Jeopardy since 1984, announced Wednesday that he’s been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
- The diagnosis means the cancer has spread to other parts of his body.
- Trebek said he’ll “fight this” and “keep working.”
- Scientific studies suggest that kind of positive outlook can be a boon to cancer patients.
Alex Trebek, who has been hosting Jeopardy for 35 years, was recently diagnosed with cancer.
On Wednesday, Trebek, who’s infamously “curious about everything,” announced his diagnosis with a video message on Twitter, adding in his usual dose of trivia flare.
“Just like 50,000 other people in the United States each year, this week I was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer,” Trebek said.
This disease starts in the pancreas, an organ in the abdomen that helps us break down food so the body can use it. Stage 4 cancer is the most advanced, meaning Trebek’s cancer has spread in his body. The five-year survival rate for this type of pancreatic cancer is 3%.
“Normally, the prognosis for this is not very encouraging, but I’m going to fight this, and I’m going to keep working,” Trebek, who is 78 years old, said in the video. He joked that his decision to keep hosting Jeopardy is not a choice, but an obligation.
“Under the terms of my contract, I have to host ‘Jeopardy!’ for three more years! So help me. Keep the faith and we’ll win,” he said.
Pancreatic cancers are not often diagnosed early because there aren’t many detectable signs or symptoms, and because the organ is hidden by the stomach, small intestine, liver, and others. Unfortunately, that means the cancer often has ample time to metastasize before it gets caught and treated.
“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,” Trebek added.
Trebek’s treatment options
Pancreatic cancer can be treated in a variety of ways. Surgeons can remove a cancerous tumour from the pancreas, or doctors may perform a pancreotomy, removing the affected organ altogether. That strategy probably won’t help much if a cancer has already spread to other areas of the body, though, as Trebek’s has.
Radiation can be used to both kill pancreatic cancer cells and stop them from growing further with x-rays, but patients with stage 4 pancreatic cancer more often opt for chemotherapy, which aims to perform many of the same cancer-nixing functions as radiation with powerful drugs like gemcitabine.
There are also clinical trials that patients can enroll in to try out newer cancer treatments.
Stage 4 pancreatic cancer is a disease doctors are still learning how to treat best, and some of the recommended care is simply palliative, meaning its goal is to relieve symptoms and reduce suffering. For example, doctors may perform bypass surgery on patients whose cancer has progressed beyond the pancreas to help them eat normally if a tumour is blocking blood flow to the stomach or gallbladder.
Optimism can be good, but not if it divorces cancer patients from reality
A cancer diagnosis can be a depressing prospect.
Researchers have found that a person’s risk of developing anxiety and depression can rise when they become a cancer patient. Trebek’s positive attitude may help with that: a 2017 analysis of 180 different studies found that patients who believe they can exercise some control over the way they cope with a diagnosis, thereby mitigating stress, can better manage their anxiety and maintain a good quality of life.
“The battle of being mortal is the battle to maintain the integrity of one’s life – to avoid becoming so diminished or dissipated or subjugated that who you are becomes disconnected from who you were or who you want to be,” author and surgeon Atul Gawande wrote in his 2014 book, “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.”
But believing that everything’s going to be fine can also be problematic. An 18-year-long study of older Canadians (Trebek’s home country) showed that a persons risk of death is 313% higher if they’re unrealistically rosy about their own health expectations. Researchers think this may be because people might feel more defeated when their outcomes are worse than what they’d expected, or because a person who’s too optimistic may go untreated and fail to properly prepare for the worst.
Oncologists also tend to be overly optimistic about a cancer patient’s odds of survival in conversations with them,studies suggest. Patients, however, generally appreciate more honesty and empathy from their doctors than hollow optimism.
The militaristic combat language surrounding “fighting” a cancer diagnosis doesn’t always help, either.
“Anyone facing this cancer must indeed summon valor to undergo life-prolonging treatment,” gastrointestinal oncologist Mark Lewis wrote in The Oncologist last year. “But there is a larger issue here with the semantics of sickness. We have, perversely, allowed our medical vocabulary around cancer to mutate into the parlance of combat. No other disease evokes such talk of conflict.”
No matter how a patient approaches their cancer diagnosis, the outcome should not be associated with any special badge – or lack thereof.
“I have cared for thousands of patients with cancer, and I have never met a coward,” Lewis said.
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