Alex Trebek announcing cancer diagnosis brings hope to many fighting pancreatic cancer

DUARTE, Calif. (KABC) -- Alex Trebek telling his fans that he has stage 4 pancreatic cancer brought about awareness of the disease - but also, lots of questions.

Why is it often diagnosed so late, and what are the symptoms? What are things people can do to lower their risk?

The effect of Trebek's announcement has many people asking why pancreatic cancer is so difficult to catch early.

"That cancer is very difficult to detect especially if it's on the left side of the gland," said Dr. Laleh Melstrom, surgical oncologist at City of Hope.

She said patients have a better chance of detecting it early if a tumor develops on the right side because jaundice often develops, and that's a red flag.

"That is a signal that something is blocking traffic there," she said. "Oftentimes, we'll find small tumors on the right side of the pancreas."

Risk factors include family history of skin cancer, breast cancer, smoking and obesity.

While symptoms such as dull, achy, abdominal pain and unexplained weight loss are difficult to discern, one telltale sign might be new onset diabetes.

"If there's a mass in the pancreas prohibiting it from functioning normally, then your blood sugar is going to be very high," Melstrom said.

Right now, doctors use imaging tests like endoscopic ultrasound and MRI's as well as a biopsy to diagnose pancreatic cancer, but often by the time it's diagnosed, it's at a late stage. That's why researchers are working a blood test for earlier detection.

Melstrom said those who have a close relative who's been diagnosed should work with a doctor to further investigate their risk.

"If a patient is at high risk, the appropriate channel is counseling, genetic testing and then screening," she said.

For the general population, Melstrom's said to take care of yourself.

"First and foremost, take care of yourself. Don't smoke, maintain a normal weight and see your doctor regularly," she said.

For patients who are newly diagnosed she says enrolling in clinical trials on top of standard of care therapies should be part of their goal.

She said researchers are making great strides in customizing personal treatments for a patient's specific tumor profile and new therapies show much promise.

"There are going to be things down the pike two years from now that aren't available today," she said.

She added the biggest effect of Trebek going public is that it's going to give a lot of people hope.

To learn more, City of Hope offers five things to know about pancreatic cancer.
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