How Alex Trebek Continues to Fight Back Against Pancreatic Cancer

We'll take utter heartbreak for 200, Alex: News that Jeopardy! icon Alex Trebek was battling stage four pancreatic cancer was tough to hear, but the host has proven he's up for the challenge.

By Sarah Grossbart Mar 04, 2020 8:00 PMTags

For 36 years, Alex Trebek has been the purveyor of obscure facts from the archeologist who opened King Tut's tomb in 1922 (Who is Howard Carter?) to the device Alexander Graham Bell tested out on Civil War vets still riddled with bullets (What is a metal detector?).

But for the past year, the longtime Jeopardy! host has been educating his followers on something infinitely more important and far more personal.

"Just like 50,000 other people in the United States each year, this week I was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer," he shared in a shocking March 2019 video message that has been viewed by upwards of five million people. "Now normally the prognosis for this is not very encouraging, but I'm going to fight this, and I'm going to keep working."

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In the year that's followed, he's kept to that vow, even after revealing in September that he'd suffered a setback. "I was doing so well and my numbers went down to the equivalent of a normal human being who does not have pancreatic cancer, so we were all very optimistic," he said on Good Morning America. But then, "I lost about 12 pounds in a week and my numbers went sky high, much higher than they were when I was first diagnosed. So the doctors have decided that I have to undergo chemo again and that's what I'm doing."

The treatment has been pretty much as hard as one might imagine, he revealed, saying that he's battled "excruciating pain" in his lower back, nausea, fatigue and brief moments "when, for no reason at all, I feel this surge of sadness, depression."

Giving an update Wednesday, marking a year since his diagnosis, he admitted, "There were moments of great pain, days when certain bodily functions no longer functioned, and sudden, massive attacks of great depression that made me wonder if it really was worth fighting on. But I brushed that aside quickly because that would have been a massive betrayal—a betrayal of my wife and soulmate, Jean, who has given her all to help me survive. It would have been a betrayal of other cancer patients who have looked to me as an inspiration and a cheerleader of sorts, of the value of living and hope, and it would certainly have been a betrayal of my faith in God and the millions of prayers that have been said on my behalf." 

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His candor, in keeping with what he calls a "longtime policy of being open and transparent with our Jeopardy! fan base," feels a bit crushing. And not just because it's hard to hear that anyone has been diagnosed with a disease as terrifying as cancer, particularly a form with discouraging odds that has already claimed such beloved Hollywood icons as Patrick Swayze, Alan Rickman and Aretha Franklin.

For the past three-plus decades, the 79-year-old native of Ontario, Canada has just been reliably there for us, turning up on our TV set each weeknight to teach us about literature, state capitals and world leaders in his soothing, authoritative voice. And while some stars might begrudge being pigeonholed so completely for the bulk of their career, the former Canadian Broadcasting Corporation newsreader seems to relish his roles as America's teacher.

"You have to set your ego aside," he reasoned to Vulture in November about the secret to his longevity. "The stars of the show are the contestants and the game itself. That's why I've always insisted that I be introduced as the host and not the star. And if you want to be a good host, you have to figure a way to get the contestants to—as in the old television commercial about the military—'be all you can be.' Because if they do well, the show does well. And if the show does well, by association I do well."

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In many ways, he's succeeded far beyond any dream he may have harbored as a philosophy major at the University of Ottawa. 

That's when the bilingual star (he speaks both French and English) got his start at the CBC, doing announcing work while still completing his studies. "I went to school in the mornings and worked at nights," he explained to the network in 1964. "I did everything, at one time replacing every announcer in every possible job."

By then, he'd earned a gig hosting a CBC-TV teen dance show called Music Hop, followed by Reach for the Top, a high school quiz show, and Strategy. In 1973, with a decade of hosting under his belt and considerable notoriety in his home country, he made the move to California. 

Though he landed a role heading up The Wizard of of Odds, a game show with challenges revolving around statistical questions, he felt ill at ease in his new city. "I was a shy, small-town Canadian kid," he explained to Vulture. "A friend of mine, Alan Hamel, who is married to Suzanne Somers, had come to California before I did, and I always thought, He fits right into this society. I never felt like I belonged."


As he began collecting TV jobs—The Wizard of Odds was followed by High Rollers, Battlestars and Classic Concentration—he found a mentor in publicist Richard Gully. "We met, and because he threw a lot of dinner parties at the Bistro, an 'in' restaurant in Beverly Hills at the time, he often needed single guys to fill out the table," he explained. "So Richard would invite me, and his being there to introduce me to people made me comfortable. And Burt Sugarman, who produced the very first show that I hosted here, The Wizard of Odds, introduced me to the backgammon-playing community. I met people that way; I didn't have to go out on my own." 

And once he landed his career-making job on the Jeopardy! revival (the original, daytime version premiered on NBC in 1964), he learned people were eager to meet him. "I would play in celebrity golf tournaments and meet stars," he shared. "Frank Sinatra told me he was a fan of the show. Jimmy Stewart, too. I thought, Oh my gosh. These major stars watch me on occasion. I felt good about that."

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Not that he bought too much into his own notoriety. A self-described homebody, he didn't really love the L.A. nightlife, preferring quiet nights at home reading James Comey's A Higher Loyalty, Amy Siskind's The List or The Brontës by Juliet Barker. "I was never into going out to clubs," he told People. "It wasn't my scene." 

And he gets how admissions like that play into the nerdy professor image most fans have of him and, frankly, he's fine with it. 

"I've learned that people draw conclusions that satisfy their prejudices, and those conclusions don't always coincide with reality," he noted to Vulture. "People think because I'm the host of a fairly serious, intelligence-based quiz show that I must know all the answers. I do—because they're written on a sheet of paper in front of me. And audiences are always surprised when they discover that I like to fix things around the house, that I'm not a nerdy person who spends all his time researching information that might come in handy on Jeopardy!. But I don't mind surprising people in that way."

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Another little-known aspect to his personality: He's a bit of a romantic. Following a brief marriage to businesswoman Elaine Callei that ended in 1981, he spent years tooling around the Bistro ("I was not a player," he insisted. "I dated not that often,") before meeting a real estate project manager from New York named Jean Currivan

A smitten Trebek says his only regret about their nearly-three decade marriage, which has produced 30-year-old New York City restauranteur Matthew (he owns Harlem eatery Oso) and 27-year-old Emily, who works in real estate in L.A., is that it didn't begin sooner. "I was thinking about President Bush when he died, and all the comments about his life about what a nice guy he is, and how he and his wife had been together 73 years," he told People in his January interview. "I thought, oh my gosh…if I'd just met Jean in my 20s we could have had a longer life together."

Of course, he jokes wryly of his 55-year-old bride, "I guess if I'd met her when I was in my 20s she wouldn't have been born yet. But hey, 29 years is pretty good!"

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Friends first, she told People, "There was just this deep sensitivity about him with a gruffy exterior. I kept thinking, he's 24 years older than me...but there was something that just kept drawing me to him." 

Now she realizes it was his great sense of humor coupled with intelligence and just the right amount of humility. "He takes his job very seriously," she told the mag, "but won't take himself too seriously." 

While he's quick to downplay his importance as the man at the helm of the beloved program, he maintains a deep appreciation for the game. He gets annoyed when people bet too little on Daily Doubles. "I have been disappointed when contestants made conservative wagers because they don't realize the obvious. And that is, if a clue is in the second box from the top, it's going to be easier than a clue at the bottom of the category." And that ever-so-condescending tone when contestants miss on an obvious question? It's 100 percent authentic. 

"Yes, it's conscious," he told Vulture. "Not that it's preplanned—it's a reaction—but I know that 'You've disappointed daddy' is a tone I'm striking. It's also, 'How can you not get this? This is not rocket science.'"

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Across his decades in the public eye, Trebek has weathered few scandals, save for some complaints about seemingly sexist remarks ("I've been criticized for treating women more harshly than men. I've also been criticized for treating women better than men. In fact, I remember looking in a stack of letters once and finding two: One said, 'Boy, you fawn over women [contestants] and try to help them out.' And the other was, 'Boy, you're mean to women,'") and the time he moderated a Pennsylvania gubernatorial debate only to be taken to task for talking too much.

As such he was recently checked in at number eight on Reader's Digest's list of the most trusted people in America and encountered an unexpected uproar when he floated the idea of a potential retirement during a July 2018 chat with Harvey Levin for OBJECTified, fans unable to imagine anyone else reminding contestants to phrase their answers in the form of a question. At the time, he'd undergone a December 2017 to remove blood clots from his brain and survived two mild heart attacks. 


"I got a lot of publicity when I mentioned that," he admitted, having since renewed his contract through 2022, "but, pardon me, I look at the show and think, I'm pretty good. So either our director is saving my ass through judicious editing or I'm not as bad as I sometimes think I am." 

Plus, he still really loves what he does. "I have to work, but it's work I enjoy and that still has challenges," he said. "I have at least two new players on each program and all new material that I've got to read properly." 

Despite his recent diagnosis, he has no intentions of walking away. "I plan to beat the low survival rate statistics of this disease," he stressed in his original video message. "Truth told, I have to. Because under the terms of my contract I have to host Jeopardy! three more years!"  

Jeopardy Productions

He's forthright about the extra challenges he now faces. In addition to hair loss that requires him to wear a wig on set, he has sores in his mouth that can make it difficult to enunciate words. "There are weaknesses I feel in my body but I can always suck it up when it comes to tape the show," he told CTV's Lisa LaFlamme in October. "I'm sure there are observant members of the television audience that notice also, but they're forgiving," he continued. "But there will come a point when [fans and producers] will no longer be able to say, 'It's okay.'" 

Fortunately that time hasn't quite come yet. "Some days are better than others," he allowed at the 2020 Television Critics Association winter press tour in January. After filming the recent Jeopardy: The Greatest of All Time tournament, "I said this to my wife, because I saw all the shows after they were in, I said, 'Did you notice anything about the way I handle the shows?' She said, 'I didn't notice anything at all,' and I said I did. I seemed a little slower…I feel that I was not having one of my best weeks, so some weeks are good, some are bad." 

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On the good weeks the host, who recently donated $10 million of his fortune to his alma mater and another $100,000 to L.A. homelessness charity Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission, can appreciate how strangely nice it is to be eulogized while he's still around to appreciate it.

"People all over America and abroad have decided they want to let me know now, while I'm alive, about the impact that I've been having on their existence," he shared in January's ABC special, What Is Jeopardy? Alex Trebek and America's Most Popular Quiz Show. "They have come out and they have told me. And my gosh, it makes me feel so good."


He intends to continue "as long as my skills do not diminish." So should he feel it's time to call it quits, he'll cede control willingly. "All you need is a competent host to help keep things moving," he told Vulture, noting that the perfect person would be "personable, bright, have a sense of humor. My recommendation is Betty White." (Others he has floated include CNN's Laura Coates and Los Angeles Kings announcer Alex Faust.) 

His only request, he said, is to go out on his own terms. 

"I will tell the director, 'Time the show so that I have 30 seconds at the end.' Because when Ken Jennings lost after 74 wins in a row, I had a tear in my eye and no time for a good-bye. So all I want on my last show is 30 seconds, and I'll do what Johnny Carson did: 'Hey, folks, thank you. Been a good run and all good things must come to an end.' Then I'll move on."

(Originally published March 7, 2019 at 10 a.m. PT)