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Shining a light on pancreatic cancer

Alex Trebek, the legendary host of the game show "Jeopardy!," passed away on November 8 at the age of 80 after a less than two-year bout with pancreatic cancer. The well-known television personality is not the only public figure to die from the disease. Pancreatic cancer took the lives of civil rights leader John Lewis and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg earlier this year.

Trebek revealed to the public that he had stage 4 pancreatic cancer in March 2019 and was open and encouraging throughout his cancer battle. Although Trebek fought valiantly, the 5-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is very low – less than 10% – because most people aren't diagnosed with pancreatic cancer until it has progressed to an advanced stage.

Although pancreatic cancer is difficult to diagnose in its earliest stages, here is more information about symptoms, risk factors and what you can do to help prevent the disease.


Pancreatic cancer often causes no symptoms until it is at a more advanced stage, which is what makes it so difficult to treat. But there are some symptoms that may help you catch it earlier. These include:

  • Persistent pain in the abdomen or back
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin)
  • Unexplained weight loss or loss of appetite
  • Light-colored stool or dark-colored urine
  • Newly diagnosed diabetes or existing diabetes that becomes more difficult to control
  • Itchy skin
  • Fatigue

Many of these symptoms can be attributed to other health conditions. See your doctor if you experience any unusual or persistent symptoms.

Risk Factors

Some risk factors for pancreatic cancer are under your control, while others are not. Risk factors include:

  • Smoking – smokers are twice as likely to get pancreatic cancer
  • Chronic inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) – this may be made worse by smoking or heavy alcohol use
  • Being very overweight may increase your risk by 20%
  • Diabetes – especially type 2 diabetes
  • Family history of pancreatic cancer or genetic mutations/syndromes that increase cancer risk
  • Age – most people are diagnosed after age 65

Although you can't completely prevent pancreatic cancer, there are some things you can do to lower your risk. These include quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight and following a healthy diet.

Wellness screenings are one detection tool available to adults who do not have symptoms of a particular condition, but want to take a proactive approach to monitoring their health. Available screenings include a CT scan of the abdomen/pelvic area, which includes the pancreatic region. Screenings may be scheduled without a physician's order for those age 50 and older. Learn more about organ screenings available from Maury Regional Health here.

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Date Last Reviewed: November 10, 2020
Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor
Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD
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