Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek turned 79 on July 22. Every birthday is a celebration, but especially Trebek’s because in March the game show icon was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer.
Each year, 50,000 American are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and only 9 percent of them survive five years after their diagnosis, according to cancer.org.
In May, Trebek shared some good news about his cancer treatment progress, calling it “mind-boggling” that chemotherapy had shrunk some of his tumors by more than 50 percent.
“The doctors said they hadn’t seen this kind of positive result in their memory,” Trebek told People.
While Trebek’s treatment response invites optimism and suggests he may live longer with the disease, the sobering fact remains: His advanced-stage pancreatic cancer is incurable, says surgical oncologist Dr. Mark Bloomston.
We asked Dr. Bloomston, director of South Florida Oncology and a surgical oncologist on the medical staff of Lee Health, about Trebek's reported “near remission,” immunotherapy as a possible treatment, and local clinical trials ramping up in Fort Myers.
Q. Why is Trebek’s response “mind-boggling,” as he calls it?
A. While it’s true that we typically don’t see pancreatic cancer tumors respond to chemotherapy, it’s actually becoming more common. About 30 percent of patients who are receiving the strongest chemotherapy treatment like Mr. Trebek experience shrinking tumors. For example, here at our institution, we’ve been able to shrink tumors to the point of converting previously inoperable tumor into operable ones.
Unfortunately, shrinking tumors don’t suggest the cancer is disappearing. Mr. Trebek’s response is encouraging and will certainly prolong his life, but it doesn’t mean people like him are being cured.
Q. Trebek’s doctors, according to People magazine, say Trebek’s in “near remission.” What does that mean?
A. That's a bit of hyperbole. We don't use that terminology with cancers like Mr. Trebek’s. "Remission" means a cancer that is primarily treated by chemotherapy with the intent to cure. Pancreatic cancer, like other gastrointestinal (GI) cancers, is only potentially cured by its surgical removal. So, it's hard to know what his doctors mean when they use that subjective term.
Having said that, Mr. Trebek’s experience sounds very encouraging. I interpret it to mean that his tumors are responding well to treatment and he’s tolerating the therapy with few side effects. Hopefully, this will lead to a longer survival.
Q. Immunotherapy has been touted as a possible treatment option for melanoma skin cancer. What about for pancreatic cancer?
A. So far, immunotherapy has made it into the pancreatic cancer world in a very limited way. Currently, no iterations of immunotherapy to treat pancreatic cancer are on the horizon. We’re seeing incremental improvements, but not yet the home run we’ve seen immunotherapy have with other cancers.
Q. What should readers take away from Alex Trebek’s brave and public fight against pancreatic cancer?
A. While pancreatic cancer remains the most lethal cancer, we are starting to see the needle move in terms of improving survival rates. People are living longer at all stages and having better quality of life. The cure rate hasn't drastically improved yet, but it will. Just 15 years ago, ovarian cancer was equally lethal, now long-term survival and even cure for advanced stages are the norm.
Alex Trebek is HOPE.
Q. Is South Florida Oncology conducting any clinical research into possible new treatments?
A. We have a clinical trial in Fort Myers that uses a virus injected into the tumor to stimulate the immune system to attack pancreatic cancer cells. We hope to have our first patient enrolled before the end of summer.
Looking for a Cancer Specialist?
For more information, contact the Regional Cancer Center at 239-343-9500 or visit swflcancercenter.org.
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