Inside Alex Trebek’s Health Battles Throughout His 36 Years on Jeopardy!
The longtime host died Sunday a year and a half after being diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer
Trebek's difficult battle with incurable pancreatic cancer came after more than 35 years at the helm of Jeopardy!. He shared his diagnosis with viewers in a video message on March 6, 2019, telling fans that he wanted to be “open and transparent” about his health to prevent “overblown or inaccurate reports.”
“So therefore, I wanted to be the one to pass along this information. Now, just like 50,000 other people in the United States each year, this week I was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer,” he said.
Trebek said at the time that he will continue hosting Jeopardy!, and plans “to beat the low survival rate statistics for this disease.”
“Now normally the prognosis for this is not very encouraging, but I’m going to fight this and I’m going to keep working,” he said.
Trebek's announcement comes more than a decade after he suffered two heart attacks.
In December 2007, he had a “very minor heart attack,” but it didn’t keep him away from the show for long. Then, in June 2012, he had another “mild” heart attack after experiencing “a squeezing, tight pain” for several days.
“I had been doing some work around the house working with a heavy ladder,” he told PEOPLE after he was released from the hospital. “I just thought it was muscle strain.”
But his wife, Jean Currivan, insisted that he go to the hospital given his history.
“She was very adamant and had tears in her eyes,” Trebek said. “I didn’t want to upset her more than I had already so I went — and she was right.”
There, doctors found a blockage in one of his arteries, but they did not need to put in a stent.
“My body cleared the blockage itself,” said Trebek, who credited the aspirin he took for what he thought was simple muscle pain. “My heart seems to heal, so that speaks well for my future.”
Trebek has also dealt with a few bodily injuries — he tore his Achilles tendon in 2011 while chasing a burglar from his hotel room, and in 2015, he had to sit while hosting Jeopardy! after undergoing a full knee replacement.
In 2017, he was forced to take a long (for the hard-working Trebek) hiatus from the show over the holidays following a hard fall in October that led to blood clots in his brain. He underwent surgery over the winter holidays and updated fans soon after, telling them that the “prognosis is excellent,” and that he expects "to be back in the studio taping more Jeopardy programs very, very soon.”
Trebek also worried about his mental health, and said in Nov. 2018 that he elected to undergo testing for early onset Alzheimer’s after noticing that he couldn’t recall facts with his usual speed.
“I love doing crossword puzzles, and recently I’d be looking at a clue, it’d be 23 across, and I’d be trying to fit the answer into 26 across. I was always off,” he told Vulture. “Because of that I went to be tested for early Alzheimer’s.”
Initially, doctors told him that the tests didn’t look good, but after additional testing, they said, ” ‘You’re okay. No need to worry,’ ” Trebek said.
Trebek told PEOPLE in January that his memory problems still persist, and that he doesn’t really take in the information he quizzes contestants on during filming.
“I don’t retain it, and I’m not able to recall it, unless it’s in a subject matter that is of interest to me beforehand,” he said. “And then I’m more likely to remember.”
He also said that he knows he should be more active, but he’s resistant.
“If I really wanted to do it, I would do it. I’ve got a little room over there with an exercise treadmill, and if I wanted to exercise and I thought it was really important, I would do it. But I don’t do it. I’m not a person who exercises for the sake of exercise, but I should start,” he said. “I’m becoming more sedentary, and that’s not a good thing.”
Four months later, Trebek revealed that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, which carries a grim outcome — the cancer is incurable, and has spread to other parts of the body. Most patients only live a year after their diagnosis.
But Trebek did well initially — two months later, after starting chemotherapy, he said he was "near remission," according to his doctors.
“It’s kind of mind-boggling,” he told PEOPLE. “The doctors said they hadn’t seen this kind of positive result in their memory…some of the tumors have already shrunk by more than 50 percent.”
But that chemotherapy was difficult on Trebek. He said there were some days he would be "on the floor writhing in pain" in between filming episodes of Jeopardy!.
“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,” Trebek said at the time. “They said, ‘Good, we’re gonna stop chemo, we’ll start you on immunotherapy’ and I lost about 12 pounds in a week and my numbers went sky-high, much higher than they were when I was first diagnosed.”
Trebek made it to a major milestone in March — one year since his diagnosis, past the life expectancy — and said in July that he had started on an experimental immunotherapy treatment that had helped former Sen. Harry Reid achieve remission from the same cancer. Trebek was "doing well" after switching treatments.
“They do a blood test to see what my CA 19 numbers are,” he explained on Good Morning America. “And the CA 19 numbers are an indicator of how your pancreatic cancer is progressing. Eight weeks ago, the numbers were at about 3,500. Now, they’re below 100. So I’m going in the right direction.”
“There was one day a few weeks ago when Jeanie asked me in the morning, ‘How do you feel?’ And I said, ‘I feel like I wanna die.’ It was that bad,” he said. “I apologize to her and explain that it has nothing to do with my love for her or my feelings for her. It just has to do with the fact that I feel like I’m a terrible burden to her. And that bothers me tremendously."
Still, after a brief break due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Trebek returned to the Jeopardy! podium to film the show's 37th season over the summer, with new episodes airing beginning in September. There were safety changes — all contestants were tested for COVID-19, stood at socially-distanced podiums and Trebek stayed more than six feet away at all times — but the show was back, and many contestants used their time on the show to celebrate the iconic host.
Ten days after he filmed his final episode, Trebek died at home, the show announced on Twitter.
"Jeopardy is saddened to share that Alex Trebek passed away peacefully at home early this morning, surrounded by family and friends," they said. "Thank you, Alex."