Nearly three years after longtime “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek died from pancreatic cancer, his wife Jean Trebek is sharing memories of her late husband and how she’s continuing to keep his legacy alive through efforts to advance detection and treatment of the disease.
November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, which shines a spotlight on what many call a “silent killer.”
The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 64,000 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2023, and that more than 50,000 will die from the disease.
Pancreatic cancer is deadly and notoriously difficult to detect — by the time many people are diagnosed, they face a grim prognosis. The five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is just 12%, according to the American Cancer Society.
Alex Trebek announced to the world that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in March 2019.
The diagnosis did not stop the beloved host from bringing “Jeopardy!” to television screens every week. America watched as he fought the disease with courage and grace, and continued to work on the show up until his final days.
Alex Trebek died from pancreatic cancer on November 8, 2020 at the age of 80.
Almost three years after the anniversary of his death, Jean Trebek joined TODAY co-anchor Savannah Guthrie to share how she is continuing to keep her late husband’s memory alive and honor his legacy.
Partnering with Stand Up to Cancer, Trebek has launched the Alex Trebek Fund to support scientists working on improving screening and treatment options for pancreatic cancer.
Trebek was joined by former TODAY co-anchor Katie Couric, who lost her sister Emily to pancreatic cancer in 2001 and helped Trebek to establish the fund to bolster research efforts.
“This was something that Alex actually would champion. He loved a good challenge. He was very curious. He loved to know the answers both at “Jeopardy” and at home,” Trebek told Guthrie in an interview aired Nov. 1, 2023. “I think this really coincides with his character, his spirit of helping others and finding the right answers.”
Pancreatic cancer is hard to detect
Pancreatic cancer is a type of cancer that begins as a growth of cells in the pancreas, an organ located behind the stomach which plays a major role in digestion, per the Mayo Clinic.
Pancreatic cancer is rarely found in the earlier stages, when the chance of curing the cancer is the greatest. According to the National Cancer Institute, pancreatic cancer is hard to detect for the following reasons:
- In the early stages, there are no noticeable signs or symptoms.
- If the signs of pancreatic cancer are present, they mimic the signs of many other illnesses, such as pancreatitis or a stomach ulcer.
- The pancreas is obscured by other organs in the abdomen and is difficult to visualize clearly on imaging tests.
In 2019, Alex Trebek joined the World Pancreatic Cancer Coalition’s global awareness initiative by releasing a public service announcement encouraging people to learn about the risk factors and symptoms of pancreatic cancer.
“I wish I had known earlier that the persistent stomach pain I experienced prior to my diagnosis was a symptom of pancreatic cancer,” he said in the PSA.
In August 2020, Trebek recalled in an essay that she had noticed her late husband’s complexion was off during a family trip in 2019, prompting a visit to the doctor to run tests which ultimately revealed the cancer diagnosis, TODAY.com previously reported.
Although the early stages are often asymptomatic, as the pancreatic cancer grows it may cause the following symptoms, per the NCI:
- Jaundice or a yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes
- Light-colored stools
- Dark urine
- Persistent abdominal or back pain
- Loss of appetite
- Unexplained weight loss
- Nausea and vomiting
Pancreatic cancer is so deadly because it’s usually only caught in the advanced stages, when it has already spread outside of the gland to other parts of the body.
By the time Alex Trebek was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, the tumor had already spread to his stomach, TODAY previously reported.
The gameshow host was open about the tough side effects of chemotherapy — including hair loss and mouth sores which made it difficult to enunciate — but continued to host “Jeopardy!” with a vivacious, positive attitude.
After Alex Trebek’s death, Couric — who lost her first husband to colon cancer — said she reached out to Trebek to offer support. “We started talking about Alex’s legacy and how we could honor him and that’s when the idea of this fund came about,” said Couric. “Science takes money and that’s why we’re establishing this,” Couric added.
Couric discussed exciting areas of research in the diagnosis and treatment of pancreatic cancer. These include the potential use of liquid biopsies — a blood test to detect signs of cancer — and a personalized mRNA pancreatic cancer vaccine which reawakens the immune system to fight cancer cells.
“I think doing something creative or proactive really helps the healing journey,” said Trebek.
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