Alex Trebek Dies After Battle With Pancreatic Cancer

Theresa Tamkins

November 09, 2020

Alex Trebek, the long-running host of the game show Jeopardy! whose sharp wit, dry humor, and celebration of the intellect made him one of television's most beloved icons, has died. The cause was pancreatic cancer, according to a statement from the official Jeopardy! Twitter feed.

"Jeopardy! is saddened to share that Alex Trebek passed away peacefully at home early this morning, surrounded by family and friends. Thank you, Alex," the tweet read.

Trebek, 80, was the host of Jeopardy! since 1984, and he appeared in more than 8,000 episodes. The show, in which facts are revealed and contestants provide the matching question, phrased in a specific way, became a cultural touchstone.

Trebek's popularity and longevity on daytime television was unparalleled. In 2014, he was awarded a Guinness World Record for most game shows hosted by the same presenter. In addition, he won five Daytime Emmys for Outstanding Game Host, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and in 2011, a Peabody Award for "encouraging, celebrating and rewarding knowledge."

Trebek and Jeopardy! were parodied on Saturday Night Live and many other shows and he appeared as himself in more than 70 movies and television episodes, including The Simpsons, Short Cuts, and Charlie's Angels. He has a star on both the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Canadian Walk of Fame.

In a special announcement on March 6, 2019, Trebek revealed he had pancreatic cancer.

"Just like 50,000 other people in the United States each year, this week I was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer," he said. He noted that the prognosis was not very encouraging, but that he was going to fight it. He ended the announcement with his characteristic humor. "Truth told, I have to, because under the terms of my contract I have to host Jeopardy! for three more years," he said.

The announcement was met with an outpouring of love and support from fans around the world. Trebek followed up with an announcement on the show's Twitter account thanking fans for their kind words, prayers, and advice. "I am extremely touched by the warmth you have expressed in your comments to me," he said. "I'm a lucky guy."

Two months later, he and his doctors announced that he had responded incredibly well to treatments and was in "near remission," his doctors said in May. In late August, Trebek seemed to be doing so well that he returned to taping the 35th season of Jeopardy!

But in September 2019, Trebek said he was resuming chemotherapy after a jump in his cancer-related numbers. The chemo was taking a toll, he told CTV in an interview in early October.

"Yup, [I] went all the way down to numbers that correspond with a normal human being without cancer," he told CTV. "[But] then all of a sudden, it blew up and went 50% higher than when it was first diagnosed. Go figure."

He said the side effects of the chemo were affecting his ability to work but that he would stay "as long as my skills don't diminish."

He also said during the interview that he had a long life and was not afraid of dying.

Pancreatic cancer makes up 3% of all cancers diagnosed each year, and 7% of cancer deaths according to the American Cancer Society. Although Trebek did not specify what type of pancreatic cancer he had, about 95% of people with the disease have pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, said Matthew Katz, MD, chief of pancreatic surgery service at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. The 5-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is under 10%.

"This is a particularly aggressive type of disease that is rarely detected early and often detected in the late stage of disease, as it was with Mr. Trebek, when it's hard to treat," . Katz said. In more than half of people, the cancer has metastasized at the time of diagnosis, meaning it has already spread outside the original tumor. In stage 4, the cancer has metastasized to distant sites, such as the liver, lungs, bones, or other areas of the body.

"For these and other reasons, survival is not terribly long after diagnosis," Katz said.

The symptoms of pancreatic cancer can include weight loss, fatigue, and abdominal discomfort and other gastrointestinal complaints like nausea and diarrhea, although these are also symptoms of many common conditions that are completely benign, Katz said. Other symptoms more unique to pancreatic cancer are jaundice, or a yellowing of the skin and eyes, itchy skin, or a change in the color of urine and bowel movements. "But again, this can happen with a number of other problems," Katz said.

Pancreatic cancer is more common in people who are older and 90% of patients are over 55. Smoking, diabetes, and certain genes, like BRCA, in addition to other risk factors, are linked to a higher risk of pancreatic cancer, Katz said.

Trebek was born on July 22, 1940, in Sudbury, Ontario. He attended the University of Ottawa and earned a degree in philosophy. He got his start working at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, covering events for radio and television. In 1973, he became the host of an NBC game show called Wizard of Odds. After working on this and other game shows, he became the host of Jeopardy!

He was a spokesperson for the humanitarian organization World Vision for decades, traveling the world to support the charity. He also volunteered with the charity Smile Train and participated in USO tours, visiting troops overseas. He was given the Bob Hope Entertainment Award in 1998.

Trebek is survived by his wife, Jean Currivan Trebek, and two children, Emily and Matthew Trebek. His first marriage to Elaine Callei ended in divorce in 1981.