Alex Trebek has stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Here's what that means.

ABCAlex Trebek released an announcement about his diagnosis.
  • Pancreatic cancer is very difficult to detect early – there’s no screening test for it, and symptoms don’t typically arise until it’s far advanced.
  • The current 5-year survival rate is 9% among all pancreatic cancers in the US, according to the American Cancer Society.
  • Advances in available chemotherapies have led to a rising survival rate over the past few years.
  • Every individual’s cancer is different, so treatments and outcomes may differ greatly.

Alex Trebek, the host of Jeopardy for the last 35 years, announced on Wednesday that he was recently diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 56,770 people – 29,940 men and 26,830 women – will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the US in 2019 alone. Around 45,750 people will die of it.

While pancreatic cancer only accounts for about 3% of all cancers in the country, it accounts for around 7% of deaths because it is particularly aggressive and almost always caught late, as in Trebek’s case.

Cancer stage definitions help doctors figure out the best treatment options

According to the American Society of Clinical Oncologists, cancer stages are defined by the size of the tumour (T), whether the tumour has spread to the lymph nodes (N), and whether the cancer has metastasized – or spread to other parts of the body (M).

There are other factors also considered in an official assessment of TNM stage, including tumour markers and tumour genetics.

When any type of cancer is at stage IV, that means it has spread to other organs and/or parts of the body – and may also be called advanced or metastatic cancer, according to ASCO.

The TNM system generally applies to cancers that form solid tumours. Blood cancers, childhood cancers, and brain tumours are not graded this way. Brain tumours don’t usually spread outside the brain and spinal cord, according to ASCO.

Pancreatic cancer is not typically caught in the early stages

The pancreas is an organ that is located behind your stomach.

Pancreatic cancer often goes undiagnosed in the early stages because of this location, and also the fact that most people who develop it don’t show symptoms until the tumour is very large and/or the cancer has spread, according to the American Cancer Society.

Pancreatic cancer cellsFlickr/Ed UthmanPancreatic cancer cells (left) next to normal pancreatic cells (right).

People who may be at an increased risk of developing this type of cancer – those with a high incidence of family history of pancreatic cancer, for example – may be able to undergo genetic testing to get more specifics on their risk.

The 5-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is low

According to the American Cancer Society, based on patients in the US between 2008 and 2014 who have battled this type of cancer, the five-year survival rate is currently at 9%.

It’s important to note that this number is an average; depending on the specific details of an individual’s pancreatic cancer, the actual rate may be higher or lower.

Many factors can influence the likelihood of developing pancreatic cancer – but only a few can be changed

Genetics, age, race, and gender are just a few of the contributing factors. Men are slightly more likely than women to develop it, and African Americans are also at greater risk for reasons that may be linked to access to treatment, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

Some contributing factors that can be controlled include workplace exposure to chemicals commonly used in the dry cleaning and metalworking industries, obesity, and using tobacco. Currently, around 25% of pancreatic cancers are believed to be caused by smoking cigarettes, according to the American Cancer Society.

Chemotherapy is the most likely treatment for stage 4 pancreatic cancer

IVbankrx/ iStockChemotherapy is a treatment option.

Surgical removal only has a chance of working if the cancer has not spread – and the spread of cancer is part of the definition of cancer rated at stage 4.

Dr. Ursina Teitelbaum, the clinical director of the pancreatic cancer research center at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times that new chemotherapy regimens have contributed to a rising survival rate, but it’s still an uphill battle.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.