In March 2019 Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek told the world that, sadly, he had stage four pancreatic cancer. And, tragically, that particular progression of the disease typically possesses a very low survival rate. But over the following months, Trebek kept fans informed over how he was fighting the illness. His wife, Jean Currivan Trebek, also had plenty to say about how the battle was affecting her – and her words may just be an inspiration for anyone else with a loved one going through the same ordeal.
Yes, fans of the popular game show learned the awful news about Trebek on March 6, 2019. On that date, the TV presenter released a video message in which he announced, “Just like 50,000 other people in the U.S. each year, this week I was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer.” But that’s not all.
Trebek went on, “Now, normally, the prognosis for this is not very encouraging. But I’m going to fight this, and I’m going to keep working. And with the love and support of my family and friends, and with the help of your prayers also, I plan to beat the low survival rate statistics for this disease.” Yet even though the revelation was a devastating one, there was still room for optimism – and humor.
You see, the game show host added, “Truth told, I have to [beat cancer] 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. Thank you.” And soon after the news broke, there was understandably an outpouring of sympathy towards the star.
A number of Trebek’s fellow TV personalities sent messages of support, for instance. American Idol’s Ryan Seacrest wrote to the Jeopardy! star on Twitter, “Your level of grace, even in the face of adversity, is admirable and second to none. Stay strong and keep the faith, Alex. We are with you all the way!” And Pat Sajak, the host of Wheel of Fortune, wrote, “Our hearts go out to [Trebek] and his family. But there is no one I know who is stronger and more determined, and I would never bet against him.”
And on April 17, Trebek not only thanked fans and friends for their messages, but he also gave everyone an update on his condition. Via a new video message, the veteran host said, “Despite what you may have heard, I’m feeling good, I’m continuing with my therapy and we – by we, the staff – [are] already working on our next season, the 36th year of Jeopardy!”
Touchingly, Trebek said that he looked forward to seeing everyone later in the year before continuing, “So, here, on the last day of taping for our 35th anniversary season, I wanted once again to thank you for your continuing messages of encouragement and support – particularly the many cards I’ve received from young people. I’m touched beyond words.”
But fans could’ve been forgiven for thinking that Trebek might not have made it to the next season of the show. After all, when pancreatic cancer has reached stage four, that means it has migrated to other organs. This can potentially include the bowel, lungs or liver, among others, with surgery not an option; instead, intensive chemotherapy is one of the only ways forward. And Trebek has also been giving insights into how the treatment had been making him feel.
On May 1, 2019, for instance, the star appeared on Good Morning America to talk about how things were going. There, he said, “My oncologist tells me I’m doing well, even though I don’t always feel it. I’ve had kidney stones [and] I’ve had ruptured discs, so I’m used to dealing with pain, but what I’m not used to dealing with is these surges that come on suddenly of deep, deep sadness, and it brings tears to my eyes.” But there were still reasons for Trebek to be upbeat.
Trebek went on, “I’ve discovered in this whole episode, ladies and gentlemen, that I’m a bit of a wuss. But I’m fighting through it. My platelets, my blood counts are steady, my weight is steady… The cancer indicators, those are coming down. So I’ve got another chemo next week, and then we’ll do a review to find out where things stand.” But what would happen to Jeopardy!?
Well, Trebek told host Robin Roberts – herself a cancer survivor – that he still planned to do the 36th season of the popular game show. “Now, I have the summer months to recuperate and get strong again,” he explained. “I just have to get strong because, as you know, the chemo takes it out of you. I mean, I feel so weak all the time, and that’s not a good place to be.”
And when Roberts asked Trebek what his experience with chemo had been like, he said, “I just take it as it comes.” He then elaborated, “It’s no big deal. I go in and I sit down; I joke with the nurses. And I’m there for an hour and a half while they inject all of this stuff into me, and then I go home and I have a good day, and then the next day, it turns south on me. But that’s okay.”
Trebek continued to explain, “You have to deal with it. What am I going to do? It is something that I’m afflicted with; we are dealing with it chemically and spiritually, and those are positives. And hopefully everything is gonna turn out well, and I’ll be back on the air with original programming come this September.”
What’s more, the host told Roberts that his wife had set up a new website, Inside Wink, in order to “share the good.” Trebek added, “That’s really what I’ve been feeling for the past month or so. People all over America have been sharing their good thoughts, their advice, their prayers – and I feel it is making a difference in my well-being.” But amongst all that, the TV personality emphasized that his cancer battle wasn’t just all about him.
You see, Trebek realized that his diagnosis was “drawing attention to this particular type of devastating cancer, making people aware of it.” He also said that he hoped people would discover “they should take certain precautions beforehand to find out, because we never discover pancreatic cancer until it’s too late, unfortunately.” And there was more.
For one, Trebek threw himself into raising awareness of his disease. In May 2019 he joined others who were fighting cancer for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network PurpleStride in Los Angeles. There, he was the keynote speaker, and he gave an affecting speech about how he planned to deal with his own diagnosis.
“As you all know, survivorship is measured starting from the date you are diagnosed with cancer. And on that scale, my gosh, I’m a 62-day survivor. Give me a break,” Trebek explained. “But I’m working on it. And I promise you this: that if I become a 22-year survivor, you will all be welcomed at my 100th birthday.”
The host even invited all the cancer survivors present onto the stage with him. This touching act was intended, Trebek said, to “demonstrate to the world through the media covering this event that there is hope – that we can beat it.” And what they were doing, he went on, would “show that our hearts are in this in terms of finding a way to beat cancer.”
After this, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network posted a picture of Alex at the event on its official Instagram. And the caption read, “We are so grateful that Alex Trebek was able to join us this morning at #PurpleStride Los Angeles. His courage and hope in the face of #pancreaticcancer is inspiring to us all.”
Then, on May 12, Trebek appeared on CBS Sunday Morning and shared some heart-wrenching details of his treatment. At one point, he said, “I was on the floor writhing in pain… It went from a three to an 11 [on the pain scale]. And I just couldn’t believe. I didn’t know what was happening.”
But Trebek was absolutely determined to keep filming Jeopardy! no matter what. He explained to CBS, “I taped the show, and then I made it to the dressing room on one occasion – just barely – before I writhed in pain and cried in pain.” Yet while Trebek was in agony, he still had another show to tape.
As the star went on to explain, “I had 15 minutes before the next show. So I got myself together, and spasms of that kind usually last about ten to 15 minutes. So, all right, here we go again. ‘Anybody got any pain pills?’ And I don’t like taking pain pills. But… I got through it.” And when producers of the show offered to just pull the plug on the taping, the host made his opinion clear.
Yes, as you may have guessed, Trebek refused to stop filming. “The producers were very kind. They said, ‘Look, if you… if you don’t want to do the show, we’ll just cancel taping,’” he explained. “I said, ‘No. We’re here. We’re doing the shows.’” In addition, as Trebek’s hair had fallen out during his treatment, he wore a wig during filming. “On air, I’m told that there were times when the hairpiece looked better than my real hair,” he added.
However, at the end of May 2019, Trebek had some surprising news to share with People. In essence, he revealed, he was in “near remission” from the cancer. And the TV host was awestruck at the prospect. “It’s kind of mind-boggling,” he said. “The doctors said they hadn’t seen this kind of positive result in their memory… Some of the tumors have already shrunk by more than 50 percent.”
Touchingly, the presenter believed that all the well-wishes sent his way could have helped his cause. “I’ve got a couple million people out there who have expressed their good thoughts, their positive energy directed towards me and their prayers,” he said. “I told the doctors [that] this has to be more than just the chemo, and they agreed [the positivity] could very well be an important part of this.”
But not everyone was convinced that Trebek’s news was as good as it seemed. In an attempt to bring balance, in May 2019 oncologist David Gorski wrote on Twitter, “Stories like these give a distorted picture. It’s far too early to tell if Trebek will do better than average or not – even with his promising early results.”
Furthermore, Gorski continued, “I know it’s counterintuitive, but although failure to shrink tumors does correlate with poor outcome, good initial shrinkage does not correlate very well with overall survival. That doesn’t mean that, all in all, if I were Trebek, I wouldn’t prefer excellent initial response to failure to respond. Of course I would! I’m just urging caution to reporters writing about this.”
Yet not everybody appeared to urge caution regarding Trebek’s results. Indeed, in May 2019 Dr. Brian Wolpin, director of a cancer research center, told Boston radio station WBUR, “[Pancreatic cancer] patients are living longer. Their symptoms are better controlled because the treatment is controlling the cancer better. And there are a larger number of patients who are being cured from their disease.”
What’s more, Wolpin said, “Over the past ten years, several new chemotherapy programs have been developed, and they clearly are benefiting our patients. And that seems to be true whether they have earlier-stage disease or later-stage disease.” The doctor added that “a host of new treatment approaches” to combat pancreatic cancer were currently being tested.
No matter what, Trebek considers himself extraordinarily lucky – as does his wife Jean. “Jeannie is wonderful,” he told People. “She cried, of course, this morning when she got the news. But it’s been a lot. It’s a lot of pressure.” And, naturally, Jean had taken care of her husband through the worst parts of his illness, with the TV presenter going on to praise people in a similar situation to hers.
Trebek went on, “My heart goes out to caregivers because they have to deal with their loved ones suffering. And they also don’t always know how to help, because there’s not much they can do – except try to make you feel more comfortable, at ease and not worry about ordinary stuff. They’ve also got to be strong and not allow their mate to feel like they’re downhearted too.”
Then, in August 2019, Jean shared her experience of dealing with Trebek’s cancer in her own words. In an essay for Inside Wink entitled “Peace Within,” she said, “What’s helped me the most in becoming truly peaceful within is allowing myself to have my feelings without judgment. I no longer try to suppress them. That’s the first step… and it is huge.”
Now, Jean, like her husband, is a person of faith. In fact, her bio on Inside Wink describes her as “a professional Religious Science practitioner, reiki master and sound healer.” Jean was also once a real estate manager in New York. And she’s been with Trebek for 29 years, having first met him in the 1980s. So, why did she feel the need to speak out publicly?
Well crucially, Jean’s article was about the importance of expressing your feelings when bad things happen around you. And this in itself appeared therapeutic for her. As she went on to explain, “Fear of confrontation, abandonment, disappointment and anger all presented a roadblock to my communication of personal desires, concerns and distresses. Silence was my preferred ‘modus operandi,’ and the emotional coin of inner peace was the price I paid.”
Jean continued, “When something happens, I can now experience it and realize that it is bringing up an old habitual thought or feeling that upsets me. I pause and, in that moment, take the first steps to healing and releasing that old thought. I really question the thought that I am believing. When I take the time to do this, it brings me back to a state of peace.”
Thankfully, the whole Trebek family may be finding some peace now, as at the end of August 2019 the Jeopardy! star posted another positive video message. There, he announced, “I’ve gone through a lot of chemotherapy, and thankfully that is now over. I’m on the mend, and that’s all I can hope for right now.”
The host also had some good news for fans of his game show, revealing that Jeopardy! would return on September 9. “We had some exciting things coming up, and I can’t wait to share them with all of you,” Trebek said in his video. “Let me tell you: it’s going to be a good year.” Those were powerful words from someone who had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
And the presenter’s re-appearance on Jeopardy! was a truly triumphant one. Before the game kicked off, he announced to the audience, “Today, Jeopardy! begins its 36th season on the air, and I’m happy to report I’m still here.”
Those in the cancer-care industry have also commented on Trebek’s recovery to date. Appearing on Today in September 2019, Rebecca V. Nellis of the nonprofit Cancer and Careers said that watching Trebek “helps all of us learn that working through cancer is possible, that you can continue to be that contributing member of your team, of your workplace [or] – in Alex Trebek’s case – this public figure on our televisions every evening.”
Yet Trebek’s case is arguably an unusual one, as not many like him are likely to get the same results that he did. In fact, only 3 percent of individuals with stage four pancreatic cancer live for five years after diagnosis. Nevertheless, hopefully the host will buck the trend – for the sake of his wife and kids as well as for himself.