The truth about the illness that caused Alex Trebek's death

The death of beloved Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek on Sunday spotlights the aggressiveness of pancreatic cancer, a disease with a poor survival rate — about 10 percent over five years (via the National Cancer Institute). Unfortunately, most cases — about 80 percent — aren't diagnosed until the disease has advanced because the symptoms can be mistaken for other digestive issues, Johns Hopkins Medicine says. 

Pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in the United States, the NCI says. The research agency estimates 47,050 people will die from pancreatic cancer this year; about 57,600 new cases will be diagnosed. The pancreas is a small organ — about the size of your hand — behind the stomach that creates enzymes to break down starches, sugars, and fats during digestion, Johns Hopkins Medicine says. The pancreas also makes hormones that stimulate stomach acids and regulate your appetite and blood sugar (via Johns Hopkins Medicine).

Trebek, 80, announced his diagnosis in March 2019, when his cancer was at Stage IV, and had hosted Jeopardy! since 1984 (via Yahoo!). Because he'd continued taping the show while undergoing treatment, viewers will see Trebek prompting contestants about their questions and answers through Christmas Day (via Twitter). Last year, Trebek created a public service announcement for the World Pancreatic Cancer Coalition, urging viewers not to ignore possible symptoms. "I wish I had known sooner that the persistent stomach pain I experienced prior to my diagnosis was a symptom of pancreatic cancer," he said (via YouTube).

The earlier the diagnosis, the better, doctors say

Most forms of pancreatic cancer begin in the cells that make digestive enzymes, leading to symptoms such as weight loss, loss of appetite, indigestion, and abdominal pain (via Johns Hopkins Medicine). The most common symptom is a dull pain in the upper stomach or abdomen or the middle to upper back that comes and goes. Other symptoms include jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes), itchy skin, dark urine, pale or greasy stools, fatigue, bloating, vomiting, and nausea.

Pancreatic cancer affects slightly more men than women, with about two-thirds of pancreatic cancer patients diagnosed at age 65 or older, Johns Hopkins Medicine says. The disease also affects Black men and Black women at a slightly higher rate than other racial or ethnic groups, the NCI says.

Pancreatic cancer does seem to run in some families, although most people diagnosed with it do not have a family history of it, the American Cancer Society says. A greater risk factor is smoking, which researchers think causes about 25 percent of cases (via the American Cancer Society). Other risk factors include being severely overweight — having a body mass index of 30 or more — as well as having diabetes, particularly type 2 diabetes.

However, the earlier the diagnosis, the better the prognosis. If you're concerned about any symptoms, talk to your doctor about undergoing a blood test or imaging test to check for a tumor in the pancreas, Johns Hopkins Medicine says.