Long-time “Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek gave an update on his health Wednesday as he undergoes treatment for stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
“Despite what you may have heard, I’m feeling good. I’m continuing with my therapy and we — by we, the staff — is already working on our next season, the 36th year of ‘Jeopardy,'” Trebek said in a video posted on Twitter.
“So I look forward to seeing you once again in September with all kinds of good stuff,” he said.
Trebek’s announcement in March that he had pancreatic cancer put a spotlight on a disease that affects thousands of Americans every year.
“Now, just like 50,000 other people in the United States each year, this week I was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer,” he said in the video released in March.
In that original video he said he plans to beat the low survival odds.
“Truth told, I have to, because 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, we’ll get it done,” Trebek said.
However, for people like Trebek, effective treatment can be difficult. For people diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, the estimated five-year survival rate is about 3 percent.
Experts working in pancreatic research say despite these low survival odds, there are new reasons for hope and that the field is changing quickly. Here’s what to know about the disease.
Pancreatic cancer often doesn’t lead to any noticeable symptoms until the disease has spread past the pancreas.
Additionally, symptoms of the disease are varied and can be caused by a host of other conditions, making an early diagnosis difficult.
The symptoms for the disease include jaundice, dark urine, itchy skin, belly or back pain, weight loss, and poor appetite. Additionally, another early sign might be a blood clot in a vein called deep vein thrombosis or even diabetes.
Dr. Dmitri Alden, an oncologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, said that very few people with pancreatic cancer are diagnosed in the early stages of the disease.
“The problem with this cancer is the fact that it’s silent and there’s no screening for it,” he explained. “There’s nothing for pancreatic cancer short of doing a CAT scan every year, which is impossible to imagine because of the radiation and because of the economics of the country.”
Dr. Timothy Donahue, chief of surgical oncology at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, has worked on improving treatment and the ability for physicians to detect the disease earlier.
“We’re just starting to make a dent in the prognosis and improve overall survival, but there is still so much more to do,” Donahue said in an emailed statement.
Donahue said that the median survival rate is about 12 to 15 months, but that some patients live much longer. He advised people newly diagnosed with the disease to take “one step at a time.”
If the tumor is small enough, it can be treated with surgery to fully remove the cancer. But these cases are fairly rare.
It’s unclear what kind of cancer therapy Trebek is undergoing.
In metastatic cases, physicians may turn to chemotherapy first to shrink or the slow the growth of the cancer.
There is a variety of different chemotherapy drugs that can be used either alone or in combination.
Other treatments include radiation therapy, a type of nerve block to relieve cancer pain, and a stent to help keep bile ducts open.
With the rise of immunotherapy treatments — where the immune system is harnessed to help fight the cancer — Donahue said the first step for most patients is to get their tumor genetically sequenced.
They may qualify for immunotherapy in a clinical trial.
“It’s important to get treated with state-of-the-art therapy and be treated at a high-volume pancreatic cancer center that can offer promising clinical trials,” he said.
Alden also pointed to immunotherapy research. One recent study focused on patients with the BRCA mutation, better known as the breast cancer gene.
Physicians are trying to determine if medication used to treat breast cancer or ovarian cancer patients, who have the BRCA mutation, can be used to help pancreatic cancer patients who have the mutation.
While it’s too early to know if this research will be successful in treating pancreatic cancer effectively, Alden said similar research has meant a rapidly changing landscape for patients and physicians.
He pointed out that while current survival rates are low, they may be outdated.
“The field is changing so quickly with such speed that we probably don’t even have enough time to acquire new data to really show the current status of the situation,” he explained.