Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek was renowned for his sunny nature. But in March 2019 the beloved star received the devastating news that he had stage four pancreatic cancer. There followed an outpouring of support from people all across America, and so Trebeck vowed to continue presenting Jeopardy! for as long as he could. And for a time, everything seemed to be going well. Then, in early 2020, the host reached the year milestone since his diagnosis – and he marked the occasion with an emotional post that let fans know how he had really been doing.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Trebeck decided to be so open with his followers, though. Back in March 2019, after all, the host shared the news about his cancer on YouTube. In a video released on the Jeopardy! channel, he said, “Just like 50,000 other people in the U.S. each year, this week I was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer.”
Trebek continued, “Now, normally, the prognosis for this is not very encouraging, but I’m going to fight this. And I’m going to keep working and with the love and support of my family and friends – and with the help of your prayers also – I plan to beat the low survival rate statistics for this disease.” For reference, the American Cancer Society states that only around 9 percent of those with pancreatic cancer live for five years.
However, Trebek had clearly not lost his sense of humor. He continued, “Truth told, I have to [keep working] because under the terms of my contract, I have to host Jeopardy! for three more years. So help me. Keep the faith, and we’ll win. We’ll get it done.”
And it turned out that Trebek already knew how he planned to bow out of Jeopardy!. In early 2020, you see, he shared what he had in mind for his last day on the show. The presenter was close-mouthed about when that day would come, of course, but he did know exactly how he pictured it happening.
Indeed, Trebek led a long and exciting life since being born in 1940 in Ontario, Canada. His first taste of the world of work came in his teens as a bellhop. Yet his dream was always to work as a newscaster. And in due course, Trebek did exactly that – reading the news for the Canadian broadcaster CBC and later hosting game shows.
Then, in his 30s, Trebek shifted to the United States, where he hosted The Wizard of Odds for NBC. He became a familiar face with guest roles and hosting gigs on various other shows, too. But his big moment arrived in 1984 when Jeopardy! began its revival. At the time, the original presenter, Art Fleming, knocked back the new hosting role.
Media bigshot Merv Griffin created Jeopardy! in the 1960s. In the show, contestants are given the answers to unseen questions – that they then must provide. The original series ran in various forms through the 1960s and ’70s. Then, in 1984, Jeopardy! was rebooted as a daily syndicated show on NBC with Trebek at the helm.
And Jeopardy! has been a roaring success ever since. Its 8,000-plus episodes have earned 33 Daytime Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award, for instance. The show is also rated as one of American TV’s finest programs. Trebek has been there throughout it all, too. In fact, many millions of Americans have watched the host over several decades of programming.
So it’s no surprise that the news of Trebek’s cancer shocked and saddened his many fans. This was especially true because the form of the disease that Trebek had was so consistently terminal. For those who don’t know, pancreatic cancer occurs predominately among those aged over 60.
The pancreas is a small organ that lies in the back of the stomach. It is a lot wider at one end than it is at the other and looks a bit like a fish. An adult’s pancreas is also roughly six inches long but no more than a couple of inches wide. And most cancers of the pancreas begin after the exocrine cells of the organ begin expanding unchecked.
What are exocrine cells? Well, these cells make up most of the pancreas. The glands that they form secrete enzymes into ducts. These then carry the enzymes into the intestines, where they play a part in digestion – particularly of fats. The ducts are where pancreatic cancer starts in nearly all cases, too. It comes in the form of a tumor called an adenocarcinoma.
As for Trebek, his treatment initially seemed to be going well. In May 2019, for instance, he told People magazine that he was “near remission.” He said, “It’s kind of mind-boggling. 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.”
Yes, it appeared as if the host had turned a corner. In September 2019 Trebek told Good Morning America that, after the first round of chemo, he had been “doing so well.” And he said his medical reports had almost returned to ordinary levels. Trebek had even gone back to work – but the news did not remain positive.
Trebek revealed to Good Morning America that he had been finding work physically and mentally grueling. He’d also started losing weight. He said, “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.”
Trebek continued, “Early on, I was down on myself. I didn’t realize how fallible each of us is in his or her own way. I talk to the audience sometimes, and I get teary-eyed for no reason. I don’t even bother to explain it anymore. I just experience it. I know it’s a part of who I am, and I just keep going.”
Despite the seriousness of the condition, though, Trebek had tried to remain strong. He told Good Morning America, “The thought of passing on doesn’t frighten me. Other things do. The effect it will have on my loved ones – yes, that bothers me. It makes me sad. But the thought of myself moving on? Hey, folks, it comes with the territory.”
In October of that year, Trebek’s mind did turn to the possibility that his time on Jeopardy! might be limited. He told Canadian broadcaster CTV that the chemo had resulted in sores in his mouth, and this had made it more difficult to speak. He said, “I will keep doing [the show] as long as my skills do not diminish, and they have started to diminish.”
Trebek also told CTV that he was sorry that he’d been so open about his cancer battle. He said this had brought lots of folks to see him as a beacon in their own experiences. But that had been hard for him because, as he told his interviewer, he doubted that he could bear “so much of others’ pain.”
Of course, there was an upside to speaking with lots of fans. Trebek talked to ABC News in January 2020 about how much his experience with cancer had meant to people. He said, “Because of that, and something else that is operating here, 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.”
Yet it was dealing with the negative experiences of others that had taken a toll on the host. Trebek told Good Morning America in October 2019, “I don’t know if I’m strong enough or intelligent enough to help alleviate some of that despair, so it’s tough on me.” But even if he did feel that it was too much to expect him to be strong for others and himself, Trebek continued to display great strength in public.
The host said, “The thought of the pancreatic cancer does not frighten me.” And when he considered the consequences, Trebek remained philosophical. He said, “I’m 79 years old. So, hey, I’ve lived a good life, a full life, and I’m nearing the end of that life. I know that.”
Trebek also talked to ABC News in December 2019 about how the diagnosis had impacted his mental wellbeing. He said, “My oncologist told me one of the symptoms, if you will, of pancreatic cancer is that you get these moments of depression.” However, the host explained that he was dealing with these bouts in his own way. He said, “I don’t mind getting choked up.”
Yet Trebek’s outlook on life and death had changed, as he explained. The host said, “I have learned something in the past year, and it’s this: we don’t know when we’re going to die. Because of the cancer diagnosis, it’s no longer an open-ended life. It’s a closed-ended life because of the… survival rates of pancreatic cancer.”
And while Trebek found that he could cope with the fear, he recognized that it created a burden for his wife, Jean. He said, “It’s always tough for caretakers because she has to deal with her worrying about my well-being and also dealing with… I’m not always the most pleasant person to be around when I’m experiencing severe pain or depression, and she has to tread lightly around me.”
Then in March 2020 Trebek reached the milestone of a year since he’d been diagnosed. And he decided that it was a good time to bring his fans up to date with his condition, so he released a video on Twitter. The host opened the clip by pointing out that only 18 percent of those with pancreatic cancer were expected to survive for a year, and he had done that.
Trebek proceeded to set out what that year had been like. He said, “Now, I’d be lying if I said the journey had been an easy one. There were some good days but a lot of not-so-good days. I joked with friends that the cancer won’t kill me, the chemo treatments will.”
And then Trebek described a truly hard year. He said, “There were moments of great pain. Moments when certain bodily functions no longer functioned and some massive attacks of great depression that made me wonder if it was really worth fighting on.”
Talking about the depression, Trebek noted that throughout his experience with cancer he’d always had someone else to think about. He said, “I brushed [the sadness] aside very 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.”
Trebek also acknowledged that his life had meaning to others beyond Jean. He said, “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 certainly would have been a betrayal of my faith in God and the millions of prayers that have been said on my behalf.”
A man renowned for his sense of humor and quick wit could not be expected to get through such a serious talk without a smile, though. He went on, “You know my oncologist tried to cheer me up the other day… He was certain that one year from now, the two of us would be sitting in his office celebrating my second anniversary of survival.”
The host then wrapped up his update with a bit of positivity. He said, “And you know something, if I, no, if we – because so many of us are involved in this same situation – if we take it just one day at a time with a positive attitude, anything is possible. I’ll keep you posted.”
Trebek had also given an interview to WPXI in February 2020 where he’d had some upbeat things to say about sharing his story. The game show host explained, “All of the cards and letters I’ve received [and those] giving me advice and offering prayers for me has really touched me.”
The TV host continued, “Some people would say, ‘That’s a bad deal that [Trebek] has got.’ But there are a lot of people out there who have been informed that they have cancer, they have heart problems, serious other diseases, they have Parkinson’s, whatever, you name it.”
Trebek went on, “But they don’t have that great outpouring of warmth and prayerful thoughts coming from people all over America. That’s been a great help to me. I had no idea that our show and myself had such an impact on the lives of so many people out there.”
But it wasn’t just messages in the mail that had blown Trebek away. Back in November 2019, he was left in tears when Jeopardy! contestant Dhruv Gaur used his final answer on the show to express his feelings about Trebek. Ingeniously, instead of a “proper” answer, Gaur wrote, “We [love] you, Alex!”
Trebek talked about the end of his time on Jeopardy!, too. He had foreshadowed this back in October 2019 when he mentioned his slurred speech. But in March 2020 Trebek said that the time when he would call it a day was approaching fast. And although he didn’t know when it would be, he did have a clear idea of how he wanted to bow out.
The game show superstar did not have anything big or astonishing planned for his finale, though. Trebek told ABC News, “I’ve kind of, in my mind, rehearsed it already, and what I would do on that day is tell the director, ‘Time the show down to leave me 30 seconds at the end. That’s all I want.’”
Ever the pro, Trebek continued, “Don’t ask me who’s going to replace me because I have no say whatsoever. But I’m sure that if you give them the same love and attention and respect that you have shown me… then they will be a success and the show will continue being a success. And until we meet again, God bless you and goodbye.”
It was a tough journey for Trebek, but he continued on until November 2020 when he sadly lost his battle with cancer. A statement from the show’s spokesperson read, “Jeopardy! is saddened to share that Alex Trebek passed away peacefully at home early this morning, surrounded by family and friends. Thank you, Alex.” Throughout his treatment, the host shared positive thoughts and words for those facing their own health struggles, and his legacy will undoubtedly continue.
It’s not just high-profile celebrities who offer sage advice, of course. If you’re familiar with the name Holly Butcher, it’s probably because one of her Facebook posts went viral in 2018. In fact, Butcher’s words touched so many people that they spread halfway around the world. And the message she gives in the post may even help you get more out of your life – after it completely reduces you to tears, that is.
Yes, what the young woman wrote resonated with many; it could even have changed some for the better. But the social media update is made all the more heartrending when you become aware of Butcher’s circumstances. You see, it was Butcher’s own seemingly hopeless situation that led her to view the world in a completely new light.
For most of her life, Butcher was much like other people her age – until, one day, everything changed. The Australian woman had suffered from some health complaints, with these naturally leading her to visit a physician. And while Butcher may not have worried too much before the tests to determine what was wrong were completed, the results of those inquiries turned out to be bad ones. Devastatingly, her ailment was life-limiting, and suddenly all the mundane trivialities of day-to-day existence took a back seat.
Upon learning that she had a rare form of bone cancer, then, Butcher began living in a different way. She started seeing just how meaningless trivial things were, too, and how much people obsessed over them. And her response to this epiphany was to write a letter and post it on social media.
But what did this enlightening letter say, and why was it so important? Well, before we get into that, you should probably know a bit more about the woman who gave the message. For starters, Butcher, who lived in New South Wales, Australia, led the active life of a health and fitness aficionado.
In fact, Butcher’s passion for sports went far beyond a mere hobby, as she had actually played at a professional level for her home state in both hockey and squash. Tragically, though, all this had to come to an end as her health deteriorated. And this was despite the fact that the Australian’s problems had started off as seemingly small at first.
You see, initially Butcher began experiencing pain in her knee during exercise – a situation that’s not by itself unusual among sports players. More alarmingly, though, her discomfort also seemed to increase after drinking, while the problem only got worse as time passed. In the end, then, Holly visited her doctor to try to get to the bottom of what was happening, after which physicians duly ran some tests.
Unfortunately, when the medical results came back, they revealed that Butcher’s pain was no ordinary sports injury. A particularly rare type of cancer called Ewing’s Sarcoma was actually responsible, and its progression was significant, too. Understandably, the news devastated not only Holly but also her family, who rallied around her for support.
Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of Ewing’s Sarcoma, as it’s a relatively uncommon form of the disease. To understand it better, however, it helps to know a little more about what cancer is and how it develops. And as you may already know, there are many forms of cancer – all of which begin with abnormal cells in the body.
You see, while human cells should naturally create proteins, occasionally they mutate and so don’t work in the way that they should. Instead, the cells either stop protein production altogether or begin growing in a different manner. And yet this isn’t necessarily a big problem, as some kinds of cell damage are benign and are, by and large, harmless to us.
Things only become more problematic when such cell changes occur over and over again. And mutations that recur, don’t stop and eventually spread uncontrollably are likely cancerous. Some forms of genetic damage are acquired during the course of a lifetime, too, and this partly explains why older folk are usually at greater risk of cancer than the young.
But, of course, there are many external influences that can increase cancer risks – smoking and excessive exposure to ultraviolet light being two of the most widely known examples. In addition, there’s a second, rarer type of cause: inherited or germline mutation. In particular, if a mother’s egg or father’s sperm carries a mutated gene, this could be passed on to their children.
However, there are at least a couple of factors that differentiate Ewing’s Sarcoma (ES) from other cancers. The first is that it’s still unclear exactly what causes the disease, making it something of a medical mystery. The second, meanwhile, is that children and younger adults are the ones who primarily suffer from ES.
In most cases, the patients who develop ES tumors are between the ages of ten and 20. The condition also seems to be more common in boys and young men than in girls and women. What we do know about ES, though, largely began in 1920 with a pathologist called James Ewing, who classified and lent his name to the disease.
And although experts don’t know precisely what sparks ES, they’re aware that it usually involves irregularities in a sufferer’s chromosomes. This phenomenon – which is technically called reciprocal translocation – leads to the creation of tumors that are classified as Ewing’s Sarcoma. Yet ES is still difficult to diagnose, and in roughly a quarter of cases the cancer has begun to spread before its discovery.
Typically, ES attacks bones and their surrounding tissue, causing pain and visible swelling. The disease can also lead to other symptoms, such as fatigue, a persistent fever and weight loss. And the cancer itself seems most prevalent in sufferers’ legs – particularly the knees, as with Butcher – although the arms, spine, ribs and pelvis may also be affected.
But there are other ways in which ES manifests in patients, too. Bones may get weaker, for instance, and may fracture or break as a result. That said, painful muscles or broken bones can also be symptomatic of many other conditions. And when this factor is combined with the relative rarity of ES, it makes the disease hard to diagnose.
So exactly how do physicians identify Ewing’s Sarcoma when it’s so elusive? Well, there are several different kinds of tests that may show signs of ES, such as X-rays or Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans. Doctors can also detect cancers – including Ewing’s Sarcoma – with a bone biopsy.
The cancer is often detected when a patient breaks a bone, though, with ES showing up in subsequent tests. Then, once physicians detect the problem, there are three main methods of eradicating it: chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery. Alternatively, a combination of several different treatments may be required to thoroughly fight the disease.
In the majority of cases, a treatment plan begins with a common weapon against cancer: chemotherapy. This procedure works by bombarding the patient’s body with a drug – or a mixture of them – that poisons cells. Chemotherapy specifically targets rapidly multiplying cells, which are usually tumors spreading through a patient’s body.
However, skin and hair cells also increase quickly in number, so the chemotherapy usually affects them, too. That’s why cancer patients undergoing treatment frequently lose their hair. In addition, chemo can make the recipient feel tired, nauseous and generally run-down. And in the case of ES, removing shrunk sarcomas via surgery may be a necessary extra step.
The severity of any surgical procedure, however, depends on how far the ES has advanced, and it can range from removing the affected part of the bone to entirely amputating a limb. The disease can and will spread rapidly if it’s left unchecked, after all, and late-diagnosed and undetected cases can be terminal.
And tragically, it was the worst-case scenario for Butcher, whose Ewing’ Sarcoma had gone unnoticed and was very advanced. In fact, by the time doctors could diagnose her disease in 2017, it had already reached stage four – meaning it was terminal. But although the young woman only had a short time left to live, she made the most of it.
For one, Butcher spent more time doing the things she loved with the people she loved. And in doing so, she saw the world in a new light – one that she wanted to explain through her Facebook account. So, in 2018 Holly took to the social media site and wrote a letter that began, “A bit of life advice from Hol.”
Butcher’s message continued, “It’s a strange thing to realize and accept your mortality at 26 years young. It’s just one of those things you ignore. The days tick by, and you just expect they will keep on coming – until the unexpected happens.” And the young woman went on to reveal that she had had her own visions of what her future would look like.
Butcher elaborated, “I always imagined myself growing old, wrinkled and gray, most likely caused by the beautiful family (lots of kiddies) I planned on building with the love of my life. I want that so bad it hurts. That’s the thing about life. It is fragile, precious and unpredictable, and each day is a gift – not a given right.”
Yet even though her life was being cut cruelly short, Butcher seemed to accept the situation. She explained, “I’m 27 now. I don’t want to go. I love my life. I am happy, [and] I owe that to my loved ones. But the control is out of my hands.” Nonetheless, the Australian seemingly didn’t want her last words to be morbid ones.
The young woman went on, “I haven’t started this ‘note before I die’ so that death is feared. I like the fact that we are mostly ignorant to its inevitability, except when I want to talk about it and it is treated like a ‘taboo’ topic that will never happen to any of us. That’s been a bit tough.”
In essence, then, Butcher wanted others to be aware of death’s certainty and to use it as a reason to live fuller lives. She noted, “I just want people to stop worrying so much about the small, meaningless stresses in life and try to remember that we all have the same fate.”
Butcher’s note continued, “So, do what you can to make your time feel worthy and great, minus the bulls**t.” And she shared some valuable wisdom to try to help everyone to do just that. Firstly, she advised readers to let go of the little things.
Butcher pleaded, “Those times you are whingeing about ridiculous things – something I have noticed so much these past few months – just think about someone who is really facing a problem. Be grateful for your minor issue, and get over it. It’s okay to acknowledge that something is annoying, but try not to carry on about it and negatively affect other people’s days.”
In addition, Butcher encouraged self-acceptance and being happy with what you have. She added, “Your new fake nails might have got a chip, your boobs are too small, or you have cellulite on your a** and your belly is wobbling. Let all that s**t go.”
And Butcher explained how facing her own mortality had made her realize that all these petty worries didn’t matter. “I swear you will not be thinking of those things when it is your turn to go,” she asserted. “It is all so insignificant when you look at life as a whole.” In addition, she said, you should celebrate your health.
To that end, Butcher added, “Appreciate your good health and functioning body, even if it isn’t your ideal size. Look after it and embrace how amazing it is. Move it and nourish it with fresh food. Don’t obsess over it. Remember there are more aspects to good health than the physical body.”
“That way, you might realize just how insignificant and unimportant having this stupidly portrayed perfect social media body really is,” Butcher wrote. “While on this topic, delete any account that pops up on your news feeds that gives you any sense of feeling s**t about yourself – friend or not. Be ruthless for your own wellbeing.”
And Butcher believed that people are also forgetting to appreciate what’s in front of them. She said, “Try to just enjoy being in moments rather than capturing them through the screen of your phone. Life isn’t meant to be lived through a screen, nor is it about getting the perfect photo. Enjoy the bloody moment, people! Stop trying to capture it for everyone else.”
“Say no to things you really don’t want to do,” Butcher continued. “Don’t feel pressured to do what other people might think is a fulfilling life. You might want a mediocre life, and that is so okay. Tell your loved ones you love them every time you get the chance and love them with everything you have.”
Butcher elaborated, “Also, remember if something is making you miserable, you do have the power to change it – in work or love or whatever it may be. Have the guts to change. Anyway, that’s just this one young gal’s life advice. Take it or leave it; I don’t mind! Oh and one last thing, if you can: do a good deed for humanity (and myself) and start regularly donating blood. It will make you feel good, with the added bonus of saving lives.”
“Blood donation – more bags than I could keep up with counting – helped keep me alive for an extra year,” Butcher concluded. “A year I will be forever grateful that I got to spend it here on Earth with my family, friends and dog. A year I had some of the greatest times of my life. ’Til we meet again.”
Butcher passed away the day after her family uploaded that message to Facebook for her in January 2018. And a massive 800 people would attend her funeral to both celebrate her life and to say goodbye. But her memory lives on in that emotional letter, which reached so many people and perhaps even changed some minds in the process.