The well-admired Canadian-American host of the popular game show Jeopardy!, Alex Trebek, recently announced that he, like 50,000 other people in the United States, has pancreatic cancer. The popular television personality shared that he has stage IV cancer, reflecting a number system that indicates the size of the cancer and how far it spread. Stage I indicates an isolated cancer, whereas stage IV means that the cancer has spread to the limit of what the assessment measures. The 78-year old Trebek told his fans that normally the prognosis is not encouraging and that he plans to fight it. His desire is to beat the low survival rate statistics of the disease. He quipped, “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. We’ll win. We’ll get it done.”
The pancreas is a pear shaped-gland that lies in the upper left part of the abdomen. It is an important organ of the digestive and endocrine systems. Though it cannot be seen or felt by touch, it has numerous important functions, such as secreting hormones like insulin to control blood sugar. The six-inch organ also secrets pancreatic juice containing digestive enzymes to help food absorption into the small intestines. Since it plays important roles within the body, the pancreas is often linked to other medical conditions. Examples include diabetes, in which the pancreas produces little to no insulin, pancreatitis, which is inflammation of the organ, and pancreatic cancer, where cells of the pancreas begin to grow out of control.
Pancreatic cancer is hard to detect and diagnose in its early stages. The difficulty in diagnosing people is mainly two-fold. First, the glandular organ sits deep inside the body, so tumors are hard to see. Second, people with pancreatic cancer often experience no symptoms until the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Medical professionals also don’t know what causes pancreatic cancer but explain that there can be inherited gene mutations that may increase risk factors. However, it is currently believed that most gene mutations related to pancreatic cancer likely occur after a person is born, thought to be linked to changes caused by environmental exposures.
There are two main classifications of pancreatic cancer. Exocrine tumors are the most common types of pancreatic cancer and are considered aggressive. Endocrine tumors, also called pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors, are uncommon and are less deadly. Endocrine cancers account for less than 5 percent of pancreatic cancer diagnoses. Early symptoms of pancreatic cancer are usually non-existent or vague. As it progresses, people may experience jaundice, weight loss, loss of appetite, weakness, pain in the back or abdomen, digestive issues, and nausea, or vomiting. There is currently a 5-year survival rate, dependent on many individual variables, such as patient treatment and surgery.
Currently, there is no known way to prevent pancreatic cancer. Nonetheless there are general things people can do to help stay healthy, such as eating a plant-based diet, not smoking, exercising, and limiting alcohol. Those are some controllable risk factors. Being age 45 plus, having type II diabetes, or having a family history of pancreatic or certain other cancers that increase one’s risk, are classified as uncontrollable factors. Cancer screenings for people with familial genetic syndromes can include CT scan, MRI, and Endoscopic ultrasound, but these tests are costly and are not recommended for people who are at average risk of the disease. Doctors may also check for tumor markers in conjunction with other testing. It is hopeful that one day researchers will develop a simple blood test to detect early cases of pancreatic cancer.
Alex Trebek is among a list of celebrities who were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer throughout the years; others include actors Michael Landon and Patrick Swayze, Singers Aretha Franklin and Luciano Pavarotti, and Apple Computers Co-founder Steve Jobs. The unfortunate reality is that pancreatic cancer is difficult to beat, however, research into the causes, diagnosis and treatment is currently underway worldwide. With each new day, scientists are redefining treatments regarding surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation and other therapies. Scientists are also gaining new knowledge of gene changes in pancreatic cells that cause them to become cancer. As the scientific community increases its understanding of pancreatic cancer, hope for a cure grows.
This article is purely informational and is not a substitute for medical advice.