Pancreatic cancer: What you need to know

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LANSING, Mich. (WILX) -- The news of Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek's stage four pancreatic cancer diagnosis has shocked and saddened many around the country.

The legendary face of the classic game show is not sugar coating the devastating diagnosis, but maintaining a positive outlook as he begins treatment.

Unfortunately, only 3 percent of people with pancreatic cancer at Trebek's stage live for more than five years.

The reason the survival rate is so low is that pancreatic cancer usually isn't caught until it's too late.

"Pancreas cancer is a difficult diagnosis, and most of the time it's one that's late," said Dr. James D. Herman, who is an oncologist at the Herbert Herman Cancer Center.

And, by late, Herman says it's usually already stage four.

"Why is it late? Because it's deep in the abdomen, and so it doesn't produce any symptoms."

Herman says there are actually two groups of pancreatic cancer: adenocarcinoma and neuroendocrine. Although it is unclear which one Trebek has, the more common one is adenocarcinoma, which patients' average survival is two to six months.

"It's the fourth most common killer now in the United States. It's interesting. As we get better at early detection and curing other cancers, then we see these sort of silent kinds of cancers, late-presenting cancers causing more trouble. And that's what we've been seeing with pancreatic cancer," he said.

If you do get diagnosed during stage four, Herman says fighting is an option, but it depends on your lifestyle.

"There are various forms of chemotherapy, and most of that is just buying time. So you have to think about the quality of life as well as the quantity of life."

Herman says clinical trials are an option too. He added he admires Trebek for facing the disease head-on.

"I admire his courage of saying he's going to fight. I think it was very courageous of him to come out and tell everybody. There are people that do extraordinarily well and there are people who live five, six years, and I've seen that in my career. But that's not the norm," he said.

Herman says sometimes pancreatic cancer can be caught early, but that's usually by accident. He added that having a healthy diet is a good way to decrease your chances of getting any form of cancer.

Although it often goes undetected, symptoms of pancreatic cancer include jaundice, problems with digestion and stomach pain.