Jeopardy’s Alex Trebek: The ever-handsome, debonair, [yes, sexy], suave game show host, loved by Americans and others around the world.
Trebek has hosted Jeopardy since 1984. Over those thirty-five years, he, with the help of the show’s researchers and producers, has thrust knowledge unto all who watch the show. He, too, acquired vast knowledge about topics A through Z.
But one thing he had no knowledge about–the symptoms he had experienced over a few months were likely the beginning signs and symptoms of a killer-disease: Pancreatic Cancer.
As a physician and surgeon, I can state with medical certainty that some cancers are easy to detect in the early stages; cervical cancer, for one. But when cancer develops in some other organs—such as the ovary, or the pancreas—it may go undetected for months; and then when suspected or diagnosed, it is often “too late,” or nearly-so.
In March 2019, Trebek stunned his fans with the announcement that, not only did he have cancer—pancreatic cancer—but, more concerning, that it, at the time of diagnosis, was “Stage IV.” One need not be a medical professional to know what that means, barring a true miracle from God. And medical miracles do happen—everyday, even. But sometimes not.
Alex declared his intention to fight as best he could; and with the support of his family, friends, and fans, he expressed optimism that he intended to beat the well-established dismal odds he faced. Without hesitation, Trebek embarked on an intense treatment plan as ordered by his physicians. In May 2019, Trebek announced that his doctors were extremely pleased—shocked—at how well his tumors were responding to the treatment, with some tumors having shrunk “more than 50 percent.”
But such hope and excitement was short-lived. Three months later, Trebek told the world that his disease progression continued. The battle was not yet won; in fact, increasingly it seems, it may be drawing to a fateful close. If so, we (at a time sooner than any of us want) will lose seeing Trebek on our televisions every night.
Increasingly aware of the cancer’s progression and his soon-to-be fate, Trebek recently stated, “I’ve lived a good life, a full life, and I’m nearing the end of that life… If it happens, why should I be afraid of that?” In the short time he has left, he has partnered with the World Pancreatic Cancer Coalition and created a public service announcement (PSA) to spread knowledge to others.
In the PSA, he mentions some of the symptoms pancreatic cancer can cause; they include vague abdominal, and/or mid-back pain; unintended weight loss, jaundice (yellowing of the eyes) and new-onset diabetes. [Additional symptoms include depression, fatigue, mid-to-upper back pain, and blood clots–even mini-strokes.]
Trebek’s story hits home with me because, last year, a dear friend and my former office manager, died of the very same diagnosis: Stage IV pancreatic cancer. She was 64. But unlike Trebek, “MJ” didn’t do what she should have done when first learning of the disease that her doctors thought was about to nastily consume her body.
MJ’s story is a cautionary tale. Like Trebek, I share it to impart knowledge of what can happen if you/we ignore our body’s signs and symptoms.
“MJ” was a healthy, active, attractive woman. After I retired from clinical practice, MJ began working as a masseuse. She promoted healthy lifestyles. She had no major medical maladies: No diabetes, hypertension or heart disease. She was not obese or overweight at all. She played the organ for churches and had a bevy of friends. She was a daughter, mother, cousin and grandmother.
Being health-conscious; and also having worked (for years) in a busy, popular, well-respected medical practice, she knew the importance of doing the right thing, getting checkups on time and following through with physician recommendations. But when it came time for MJ to do that for herself, she didn’t. Here is her story, in part:
In January 2018, MJ sought evaluation after having some vague abdominal pains and digestion problems. The doctor told her he suspected pancreatic cancer, and recommended a biopsy. She had the biopsy, but it returned “negative for malignancy.”
While she (and some “prayer partners”) felt some relief, her doctor advised her that his suspicion was very strong; and that pancreatic cancer can do that—it might not fully present itself at first; but it’s slowly on its nasty, vicious path to overtake and kill. He advised MJ to return in a few weeks for another biopsy. She was strongly advised.
MJ didn’t even tell me about this until March (because she knew I would tell her to get back in there and have that biopsy). When she did, I stressed to her, “…you need to go back. Now. Please go back. You cannot play with pancreatic cancer.”
But MJ didn’t go back…for months. In fact, she didn’t go back at all until she had dropped 30 pounds and her intestinal symptoms had returned full blast. She’d even had a few mini-strokes.
Not even making it to her doctor’s office, on October 9, 2018, MJ went to an urgent care center. A CT scan showed MJ had full-blown Stage IV pancreatic cancer. It had metastasized—moved/spread—to many parts of her body. They included her lungs, abdominal organs, abdominal wall, bones and liver.
Many of us formed a 24-hour “care team” and tended to her at her home. It was only then—at Stage IV—that she decided to get proactive. She wanted to go to MD Anderson, CTCA, or other cancer centers around the country. Mind you, she was too weak to even walk to the bathroom unassisted, was short of breath, and a teaspoon of water was too much for her to stomach. The cancerous tumor bulk was everywhere.
She began a GoFundMe page mid-November and, there, admitted that she hadn’t done as advised; but instead (after that initial “negative” result in January), she went on doing her thing—shopping, playing music, being a grandmother; and yes, “still telling everyone what they should be doing.”
MJ died December 18, 2018…just ten (10) weeks after the confirming diagnosis.
Alex Trebek has survived months after news of this terrible cancer, one that can be—and is—most unkind and seemingly, most unfair. But may we all do what Trebek advises: If you have symptoms, seek your physician and get evaluated sooner rather than later. And if given a diagnosis, don’t run, nor rely only on prayer. I tell patients and friends, “Be prayerful; fine. But also be practical and be prepared.”
And in this day and time with the healthcare profession being a “industry” due to the invasion of insurance companies and more into the sacred space of the doctor-patient relationship [don’t let me get started on that!], you MUST be your strongest advocate. If you have symptoms, seek help and be sure to be honest with your physician about all you are feeling. Don’t let your ‘vague’ symptoms be put off as “just gas,” or indigestion; pancreatic cancer may be beginning to rear its ugly, vile, vicious and virulent head.
If caught early, surgery then chemo can be done and life may be extended a bit. If MJ had returned in February or early March as ordered, it’s very likely (after having been highly suspected, but with a still-negative biopsy in January), they could have caught her pancreatic cancer at a stage I or II; she could have had her “Whipple procedure,” and subsequent chemo, and she might—might—still be with us today.
As we pray for Trebek; and prepare even ourselves for the inevitability of death—his, and all of ours—let’s also promise ourselves to be proper stewards of our health. Death is in all of our futures; until then, physicians are here to serve, to help, to heal, to cure when possible. Make use of us.
For more information about pancreatic cancer, I’ve provided some helpful links:
American Cancer Society: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/pancreatic-cancer/about/key-statistics.html
World Pancreatic Cancer Coalition: http://www.worldpancreaticcancercoalition.org/
Lustgarten Foundation: https://www.lustgarten.org/
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