NEWS | March 7, 2019

'Jeopardy!' host diagnosed with pancreatic cancer: What you should know about the disease

Pancreatic cancer is known to be difficult to detect, diagnose


Many people were shocked to learn this week that longtime “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Richard Bold, chief of Surgical Oncology at UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, helps treat patients with pancreatic cancer. Richard Bold, chief of Surgical Oncology at UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, helps treat patients with pancreatic cancer.

“Just like 50,000 other people in the United States each year, this week I was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer,” Trebek, 78, said in a video posted on Twitter. “Now, normally the prognosis for this is not very encouraging, but I’m going to fight this and I’m going to keep working. I plan to beat the low survival rate statistics for this disease.”

Pancreatic cancer often goes unnoticed until it’s in the later stages because it is difficult to detect and diagnose. Here’s what to know about this disease:

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells are found in the tissues of the pancreas. The pancreas has two main jobs: To produce juices that help break down food and to produce hormones, such as insulin and glucagon, that help control blood sugar levels. The digestive juices are produced by exocrine pancreas cells and the hormones are produced by endocrine pancreas cells. About 95 percent of pancreatic cancers begin in exocrine cells.

How is pancreatic cancer diagnosed?

This cancer is often difficult to detect, but it is usually diagnosed with tests and procedures that produce pictures of the pancreas and the area around it. There are several tests that can be done to determine the stage of the cancer. This is important in order to determine treatment plans and whether or not the cancer can be removed by surgery.

Why is it so hard to detect pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect and diagnose for several reasons. First, there aren’t any noticeable signs or symptoms in the early stages of pancreatic cancer. Second, the signs of this disease, when present, are similar to the signs of many other illnesses. And lastly, the pancreas is hidden behind other organs, such as the stomach, small intestines, liver, gallbladder, spleen and bite ducts.

What are some symptoms to look for related to pancreatic cancer?

Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes, pain in the upper or middle abdomen and back, unexplained weight loss, loss of appetite, and fatigue are all signs associated with pancreatic cancer.

Are there some factors that can contribute to pancreatic cancer?

Smoking, long-standing diabetes and chronic pancreatitis are a few risk factors related to pancreatic cancer. There are some hereditary conditions also associated with this cancer.

What are the treatment options for pancreatic cancer?

Surgery is one treatment option that may be used to take out the tumor. However, if the cancer has spread and cannot be removed, there are other types of palliative surgeries that may be done to relieve symptoms, including surgical biliary bypass, endoscopic stent placement and gastric bypass. The UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center offers care and surgery for young and adult patients with pancreatic cancer of all stages.

Two other treatment options are radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. Chemotherapy uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing.

Learn more about pancreatic cancer:

Pancreatic cancer: UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center

UC Davis scientist, surgeon team take on pancreatic cancer with Stand Up 3 Cancer grant

Pancreatic Cancer Collective: An initiative to improve pancreatic cancer patient outcomes

Lustgarten Foundation: America's largest private funder of pancreatic cancer research

Pancreatic cancer overview: National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health