What to know about pancreatic cancer, its symptoms and survival rates

Alex Trebek reveals stage 4 cancer diagnosis. Image via Getty Images.

On Wednesday, Alex Trebek shocked fans by revealing he has been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

The longtime “Jeopardy” host announced his illness in a video posted to the game show’s YouTube channel.

“Now, normally, the prognosis for this is not very encouraging, but I’m going to fight this,” the 78-year-old told fans. “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.”

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Image via Getty Images.

The Canadian-born television personality maintains a positive outlook despite the diagnosis, which is 30 per cent more common in men than women.

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer affects the thin gland behind the stomach that produces fluid to aid in digestion and control blood sugar levels.

According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pancreatic cancer is one of the 10 most common forms of cancers, causing approximately seven per cent of all cancer related deaths.

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Pancreatic cancer is often difficult to detect in its early stages due to its location in the body.  Tumours often go unfelt and unnoticed even during routine physical exams, with no initial symptoms until the cancer grows or spreads to nearby organs.

Image via Getty Images.

When the cancer does eventually grow, typical symptoms include:

  • Jaundice: a yellowing of the eyes and skin due to buildup of bilirubin, a fluid produced by the liver. Pancreatic tumours or growths that begin near the liver can press on the bile duct, causing fluid back-up. Jaundice is one of the most common warning signs of pancreatic or liver cancers, and can also cause dark urine, greasy or light-coloured stool and itchy skin that turns yellow.
  • Back or abdominal pain due to cancer growth pressing on nearby organs
  • Unexplained weight loss and loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Blood clots
  • Diabetes: While it’s rare that diabetes can be caused by pancreatic cancer, it is possible. The pancreas destroys insulin making cells and can cause people to feel thirsty and urinate more often. The onset of diabetes may be a sign something is wrong with the pancreas, prompting further examination.

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Survival rates

Survival rates for pancreatic cancer vary by stage. The American Cancer Society states the average number of people who survive five years after initial diagnosis is approximately nine per cent.

Patients with stage 4 cancers, meaning cancer that has spread to other parts of the body including the liver, lungs or bones, have a five-year survival rate of three per cent.

Trebek is not the first celebrity to announce a pancreatic cancer diagnosis.

Patrick Swayze. Image via Getty Images.

Patrick Swayze was diagnosed in 2008 and fought the illness for 20 months before dying at the age of 57.

According to Dr. Lucas Wong, co-director of the gastrointestinal cancer program at Scott & White Memorial Hospital & Clinic in Temple Texas, the median length of survival after diagnosis is probably “five months.”

Wong gave an interview with ABC News in 2009, following Swayze’s death, nothing that the survival time depends greatly on the body’s response to treatment and whether or not patients pursue experimental or alternative treatments.

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Steve Jobs is another public figure who battled pancreatic cancer. He beat the odds, surviving eight years after his initial diagnosis.

Steve Jobs. Image via Getty Images.

The former Apple CEO was diagnosed with a rare form of pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer in 2004; a slow-growing cancer that’s easier to treat, with many people living with the disease for decades.

Who is at risk?

While pancreatic cancer can affect anyone regardless of gender, age or ethnicity, there are several factors that can increase your risk:

  • A family history of pancreatic cancer
  • History of pancreatitis (pancreatic inflammation)
  • Smoking or tobacco use
  • Obesity or poor diet
  • Diabetes
  • Family history of hereditary conditions such as Lynch syndrome and BRCA2 gene mutations that can be detected through genetic testing
  • Age: most pancreatic cancer diagnosis occur over the age of 65

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