What patients can learn from Alex Trebek’s resolve to beat advanced pancreatic cancer


Pancreatic cancer typically has a poor prognosis, but advanced treatments are showing promise.

Game show legend Alex Trebek, 78, revealed earlier this month that he has been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. As part of the announcement to his Jeopardy fans, Trebek released a video discussing his positive outlook about facing the challenges involved with managing the advanced disease. 

Advanced pancreatic cancer typically has a poor prognosis. Patients want to hear “remission” or “cure.” However, stage 4 cancer treatment is geared toward helping patients manage symptoms to live better and longer, and it usually is not focused on curing the cancer. 

When it comes to pancreatic cancer, patients and doctors should define together what success will look like. Cancer doctors must set appropriate goals and expectations for treatment options, which, as on Jeopardy, we approach in the form of questions: 

  • What type of tumor does the patient have?
  • What is the stage of the tumor?
  • Has the cancer spread?

Based on these factors, certain treatments can make a bigger difference than others. Some patients live for years on treatment, while others experience little to no effects. This uncertainty about how a patient will respond can be stressful for patients and doctors. However, there is hope for patients and families through new and advanced treatment options in clinical trials.

Join the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network on March 31, 2019, for PurpleLight, a tribute to patients who have had pancreatic cancer. UT Southwestern pancreatic cancer innovator and physician Herbert Zeh, M.D., will be speaking at the event.

Pancreatic cancer clinical trials enrolling now

More cancer treatments are available today than in years past. The lab of UT Southwestern scientist Rolf Brekken, Ph.D., is working to improve the effectiveness of these existing treatments.

A main focus is figuring out how to treat pancreatic cancer with immunotherapy. These therapies have proven to be remarkably effective for melanoma, lung cancer, and kidney cancer, though an effective combination for pancreatic cancer has yet to be discovered. 

We currently have a clinical trial that stems directly from Dr. Brekken’s work. Our researchers are studying how a drug that inhibits a specific receptor called tyrosine kinase AXL can make chemotherapy more effective. As part of the study, we are collecting biopsies from patients to help us discover why treatments do and don’t work. The study is a multicenter project, and it is open and enrolling patients. 

Nationally, one of the more exciting studies in motion is a trial that is sponsored by a pharmaceutical company. The goal is to determine whether immunotherapy medications that don’t work alone might be effective when combined. Preliminary data are promising: As of the date of this publication, combination therapy has resulted in shrinking of tumors in four of the 30 patients enrolled. 

The next step is a randomized trial to compare the effectiveness of this therapy compared to chemotherapy. Doctors around the country are eagerly awaiting the study’s results. While we do not anticipate full reversal of stage 4 pancreatic cancer with this therapy, we hope to see more positive results than what current treatments can offer. Explore current pancreatic clinical trials now.

Advanced pancreatic cancer typically has a poor prognosis. Patients want to hear “remission” or “cure.” However, stage 4 cancer treatment is geared toward helping patients manage symptoms to live better and longer, and it usually is not focused on curing the cancer.

Muhammad Beg, M.D.

4 considerations for patients with pancreatic cancer

1. Gather a strong support network. As with all advanced cancers, emotional support is vital for patients with pancreatic cancer. It’s important to have family members or friends to lean on during tough times and to help take notes at appointments. 

2. Ask whether a clinical trial is available for the type and stage of cancer. The treatments available in these studies can give patients different options to live better and longer. 

3. Get a second opinion at a high-volume academic medical center. At these centers, patients have the opportunity to see a team of experts who specialize in specific types of cancer and are abreast of the most advanced treatments available. 

4. Talk about the cancer. In some families and cultures, talking about health issues is considered taboo. However, voicing questions and concerns gives patients the best chance at the most effective treatment – and, as with Trebek, the dialog could potentially help inspire someone else who is struggling. 

Every patient with pancreatic cancer is on a unique journey. And every patient requires personalized treatment with realistic and achievable goals. Finding a doctor who communicates and helps families understand the goals of treatment will improve patients’ chances of living better and longer. 

To find out whether you or a loved one might benefit from a consultation with a pancreatic cancer specialist, call 214-645-8300 or request an appointment online

A team approach to preventing pancreatic cancer

Related story:  A Dallas woman who survived breast cancer in her 30s credits the UT Southwestern Pancreatic Cancer Prevention Program with catching lesions on her pancreas at age 70 and adding years to her life.