In a video message, “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek told fans he will continue to fight and “beat the low survival rate statistics.”
Alex Trebek, the longtime host of “Jeopardy!,” plans to beat the low survival rate of pancreatic cancer.
The odds, though, aren’t in his favor, experts told USA TODAY on Wednesday.
Patients diagnosed at stage 4 live an average of 12 to 15 months, said Dr. Timothy Donahue, professor of surgery, chief of surgical oncology and a pancreatic surgeon at UCLA. The 78-year-old Trebek, meanwhile, said he wants to keep hosting “Jeopardy!” through his contract that ends in 2022.
About 91 percent of pancreatic cancer patients die within five years after diagnosis, according to the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research. But as Trebek tries to get the most effective chemotherapy for his particular tumor, Donahue said that working will help his health.
“It’s best for them to try and continue their normal lives as much as possible,” Donahue said. “It keeps their spirits up when combating this disease and trying to tolerate the treatment.”
Pancreatic cancer is commonly diagnosed at Trebek’s age, said Dr. Matthew Weiss, deputy physician-in-chief of surgical oncology at the Northwell Health Cancer Institute. It’s also not unusual to receive a late diagnosis after the cancer has spread from the pancreas, Weiss said, as half find out they have reached an advanced stage. Only a fifth of patients will find out at an early enough stage to undergo surgery, Weiss said.
The risk of pancreatic cancer increases with age, with most people diagnosed after age 65 according to the Mayo Clinic.
About 57,000 people each year will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society. Nearly 46,000 people will die of the disease in 2019, the cancer society projects. Out of all cancers, it causes the fourth-most deaths, said Dr. Yuri Genyk, a professor of clinical surgery at the University of Southern California. It is expected to cause the second-most deaths by 2030.
Genyk said the chemotherapy regime called folfirinox is generally considered the most effective against pancreatic cancer, but still has side effects including nausea and severe abdominal pain.
As the beloved host undergoes treatment, “Jeopardy!” viewers may see some of the toll it takes on his body, Donahue said. Trebek may appear fatigued and lose weight and hair. But some patients are responding better to chemotherapy, Weiss said.
“For the first time in 30 years, chemotherapy has gotten to the point where patients are living longer and longer lives,” he said.
Pancreatic cancer begins in tissue of the organ, which lies horizontally behind the lower part of your stomach. The pancreas releases enzymes that aid digestion and produces hormones that help manage the body’s blood sugar. An early warning sign of pancreatic cancer is diabetes coupled with weight loss, jaundice and pain in the upper abdomen, according to the Mayo Clinic. Early intervention is critical to battling the disease before it spreads to other organs.
The cancer society estimates the risk of getting pancreatic cancer in the average man’s lifetime is about 1 in 63; for women, it’s 1 in 65.
Like any cancer, pancreatic cancer starts when cells start to grow out of control. Surgery to remove the cancer “is a long and complex operation that can be hard both for the surgeon and the patient,” the cancer society explains in documentation on treatment. “It often requires a long hospital stay, at least in part because of the long incision made in the belly.”
But there are newer approaches now used at some major medical centers to do the operation laparoscopically, which is much less invasive.
Still, among patients with a stage considered surgically manageable, less than 5 percent live 10 years or longer, USC’s Genyk said.
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