Alex Trebek was one of North America’s most popular game show hosts for almost half a century. Fans know, too, that the veteran star had been diagnosed with cancer. And Trebek’s admirers were understandably upset with a revelation that he made about his treatment in 2020 memoir The Answer Is… Reflections on My Life. Thankfully, though, the man himself went on to clear up matters – and revealed the truth behind the decision he’d actually made.
Trebek had initially told the world about his stage four pancreatic cancer diagnosis in March 2019. And in between bouts of chemotherapy in a bid to beat the disease, the Jeopardy! host did his best to promote awareness of its symptoms. He even delivered a public service announcement in partnership with the World Pancreatic Cancer Coalition.
But there appeared to be good news on the horizon. Within just a couple of months of going public about his cancer, Trebek was informed by doctors that his prospects actually looked bright. And the quiz show legend was stunned, telling People magazine in 2019, “It’s kind of mind-boggling.” Trebek was even able to get back to hosting Jeopardy! that year in time for its 35th season.
Yet the doctors’ early optimism proved to be short-lived. Not long after his return to work, Trebek told CTV, “Yup, [I] went all the way down to numbers that correspond with a normal human being without cancer. [But] then all of a sudden, it blew up and went 50 percent higher than when it was first diagnosed. Go figure.”
So, Trebek underwent yet more chemotherapy. But the star told People that he believed something else was just as instrumental to the apparent improvement in his health. He said, “I’ve got a couple million people out there who have expressed their good thoughts, their positive energy directed towards me and their prayers. I told the doctors [that] this has to be more than just the chemo, and they agreed it could very well be.”
Perhaps this positive energy explained why Trebek was able to beat the odds and reach the one-year survival mark in March 2020. According to CBS News, only 18 percent of those diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer reach such a milestone. And a few months later, Trebek updated his fans with yet more encouraging news.
In a video uploaded to social media in July 2020, Trebek told his followers, “I’m doing well. I’ve been continuing my treatment, and it is paying off, though it does fatigue me a great deal. My numbers are good. I’m feeling great.” He added that fans could learn more about his cancer battle – and life in general – in a new memoir.
The Answer Is…: Reflections on My Life was released just in time for Trebek’s 80th birthday celebrations that same month. And in a press release for the book, the Jeopardy! host explained why he had felt the need to put pen to paper after all this time. He wrote, “I want people to know a little more about the person they have been cheering on for the past year.”
According to the press release, readers could also expect a wide range of subjects to be covered, with Trebek offering words of wisdom on everything from parenthood and marriage to spirituality and education. That prose would be accompanied by a whole host of previously unpublished photos of the star.
And publishers Simon and Schuster were particularly enthusiastic about Trebek’s new work. Executive editor Sean Manning wrote at the time, “Today, when there is so much uncertainty and turmoil in the world, Alex Trebek is a beacon of stability and positivity. This wise, charming and inspiring book is further evidence why he has long been considered one of the most beloved and respected figures in entertainment.”
However, in a July 2020 interview with the Texarkana Gazette, Manning revealed that the TV icon had taken some convincing to tell all. He recalled, “[Trebek] said [that] he just didn’t feel like he had a story worth telling.” In fact, the quizmaster only committed to the idea when he learned that an unofficial biography was in the pipeline.
Yet despite a demanding deadline – and, according to Trebek himself, his limited writing talent – The Answer Is… still managed to hit the shelves on the same day as the unauthorized book. These constraints meant, though, that the Jeopardy! host was forced to abandon the typical memoir approach. Instead, he simply offered fans “a series of quick look-ins” that touched upon both his private and professional lives.
The book was also penned with assistance from Rocky Schmidt – a producer on Jeopardy! who’d worked with Trebek since the late 1980s. And Schmidt told the Texarkana Gazette that despite knowing many of Trebek’s stories beforehand, he had still gained another level of respect for his long-time colleague. A “fundamental feeling of ‘I want the world to be fair’” is how Schmidt described the host’s approach to life.
Schmidt expanded, “On the show, there are clear-cut answers, and if you give the right answer, you’re gonna get rewarded for it. [Trebek] tells a story in the book about how, when he was at military school, he made hospital corners perfectly on his bed, and a [senior cadet] tore up the sheets anyway. He was upset that it wasn’t fair.”
So what kind of revelations did Trebek make that may have surprised his loyal fans? Well, for starters, the famously impartial TV personality admitted that he’d given his vote to both the Democratic and Republican parties over the years. Born in Canada, the host had been able to participate in elections in the States since he became a naturalized citizen in the late 1990s.
Trebek also claimed that he planned to make his political allegiances clearer as the 2020 presidential election drew closer. However, he told the Texarkana Gazette, “I’m trying to cope with how I want to do it. You have to do it in a way that doesn’t make it seem as if you’re picking on certain people or denigrating their points of view or putting them down.”
And, interestingly, the animosity that Trebek felt toward his mother was addressed in the book. You see, the star only learned in his 40s that he had a half-brother who’d been given up for adoption. But, apparently, Trebek had managed to patch things up with his mom before she passed away. He also admitted that he’d “come to terms with” her death “pretty well.”
Then there was the revelation that Trebek’s childhood was plagued by financial difficulties and bad health. At the age of just seven, he developed rheumatism after falling into a frozen lake, and he had spent the next 12 years in pain until the condition suddenly vanished. Even so, the TV personality insisted, “I don’t have any bad memories that affect my life. It’s all good.”
And while it may be hard to believe, the seemingly squeaky-clean Trebek was once a bit of a rebel. Yes, as a youngster, he often fell afoul of his school’s nuns with his bad behavior. And the future star even walked out of military college when he discovered the rule about mandatory buzz cuts. Trebek wrote, “I had a good head of hair… I’d be damned if I was going to let them shave it off.”
To add to that, Trebek discussed his marital relationships in The Answer Is…. He revealed, for instance, that he was on good terms with Elaine, his first wife, and that he considered her daughter from a previous marriage to be his own. And, apparently, Trebek had initially upset the father of his second wife, Jean, because of the couple’s 24-year age gap.
Of course, for many fans, what went on behind the scenes of Jeopardy! will hold the most interest. And luckily for those folks, Trebek spilled a few secrets about the show, too. For example, he explained that he had strict personal guidelines about keeping socializing with contestants to a minimum to prevent accusations of favoritism. Yet there’s one Jeopardy! regular for whom the host broke his own rule.
Interestingly, Trebek formed a connection with Ken Jennings during the record-breaker’s consecutive 74-show run. In fact, the star even asked the champion contestant to help record the audiobook version of The Answer Is… over fears that his own voice would give out. And Jennings was all too happy to accept the honor, as he told the Texarkana Gazette.
Jennings said, “The reason why you can’t hang out with Alex is not because he’s snooty – it’s because he’s read all the answers and isn’t allowed to fraternize. It’s always funny to see him in non-Jeopardy! settings where he doesn’t have the Perry Ellis set, and he’s wearing dad jeans and a bomber jacket. In real life, he could not be more down-to-earth and less like his fussy Will Ferrell stage persona.”
Touchingly, Trebek also reflected on the “second-tier celebrity” persona that he’d established. He wrote, “I think after 36 years, people have come to realize who I am and what I represent. They know I’m not a flake. There was a survey that I think Reader’s Digest did about a year ago about America’s most trusted people, and I made the top ten. I felt really good about that.”
In his chat with the Texarkana Gazette, Trebek was similarly quick to admit that he’d not been the most tabloid-friendly TV personality. He said, “I’m kind of dull and boring, aren’t I? I say it almost apologetically. It would be nice if there was something – not too offensive – but something spectacular that people could say, ‘Oh, yeah! I knew Trebek wasn’t Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes.’ But there aren’t.”
And as Trebek had started writing his book while undergoing chemotherapy, he naturally touched on his cancer battle in the work. This was a subject he also reflected upon in his Texarkana Gazette interview, opining, “A year and a half ago, I’m suddenly diagnosed with one of the worst kinds of cancer, and I’ve been dealing with it ever since. [People may have been saying], ‘Hey, maybe he had too much of a good thing going. Maybe he needed to be brought back down to earth and taught a lesson in that bad things can happen to good people too.’”
Candidly, Trebek even wrote about the time when excrutiating stomach cramps had made him fall onto his dressing room floor. On that occasion, the Jeopardy! producers had asked the host whether he wanted to cancel the impending shoot. But ever the pro, Trebek stated that he wanted filming to go ahead. And Schmidt would later remark to the Texarkana Gazette, “I defy you to watch one of those shows and say, ‘This is a day he was in pain.’”
Still, while the host remained relatively optimistic about his illness throughout the book, there was one particular quote that scared fans. Talking about the management of his cancer, he wrote, “I’m going to stick with this current protocol, then that’s it. If it doesn’t work, I’ll probably stop treatment. There is an end to all. Dying is part of life. And, hey, guys, it comes with the territory. So hang in there as long as you can, and let’s see what happens.”
After this, Trebek revealed how his family had taken the news that he was considering ending treatment, adding, “It wasn’t an easy conversation, and it isn’t any easier writing these words. Quality of life was an important consideration.” But as the star’s admirers began to fear the worst, the host took to social media to explain that his words no longer applied to his current situation.
“That quote from the book was written before my current regimen, and I was going through some bad times,” explained Trebek. “My current numbers are very good, but we will have to be patient with this new immunotherapy program that I am on. But, if it were to stop being successful, I would return to my previous chemo treatment – not stop all treatment.”
The host went on to offer an apology for the misunderstanding, adding, “I want everyone to know that I am optimistic about my current plan, and thank them for their concerns.” And fans were able to see Trebek’s good spirits for themselves when he appeared on Good Morning America to give another update.
After revealing that his cancer indicator numbers had dropped to under 100 from 3,500, Trebek stated, “I’m going in the right direction. The doctors have said [that] they have never seen a chart like mine because there are peaks. I said, ‘What do you mean? What do you usually see?’ They usually see it going up. I’m a bit of an anomaly.”
So, what was this treatment that had produced such magical results? Well, Trebek was undergoing the same form of experimental immunotherapy that had helped Senator Harry Reid seemingly fight off his own pancreatic cancer. The program had been conceived by the cellular therapy firm known as NantKwest.
Meanwhile, when Trebek was asked by the Texarkana Gazette how he felt about his life story finally hitting the shelves, he admitted that he wished he’d had more time to work on it. Even so, the star had no regrets about publishing his memoir. And the general response on the street was overwhelmingly positive, too.
Trebek said, “What I’m discovering from people who have read the book – and a lot of it unsolicited – is that they like it. And so I guess I’ve accomplished what I wanted to. I’ve made people feel good, and I’m going to help a lot of good charities. I just want people to say, ‘He’s a good guy. Now I know why I like him.’”
In a video update posted to the official Jeopardy! YouTube channel, Trebek claimed that he hoped to remain the face of the classic show for some time. He even revealed that he’d been recording new footage for a one-off special celebrating the history of the long-running series. Trebek said in the clip, “For the first time ever, we’re going to open the Jeopardy! vaults and take another look at some of our favorite episodes.”
Trebek also planned to grace the set of Jeopardy! once again when the new season started production, explaining on camera, “I can’t wait to return to the studio and start recording shows.” And during his Good Morning America interview, the host had claimed that the thought of never appearing on the quiz show again hadn’t even crossed his mind.
And Trebek certainly had the support of his Jeopardy! fan base – many of whom took to Twitter to send their positive thoughts. One follower told the host, “You are making an enormous impact. Viewers with their own struggles equate your positivity and generosity with success and not just with cancer. You inspire people to be kinder, more hopeful.”
Another well-wisher posted, “I admire Alex for being real each step in his journey. At 80, he continues to share his experience when it would be easier to be private. Thank you, Alex, for all you do to help us understand pancreatic cancer. I wish you happiness and comfort in your life with loved ones near you.”
And Trebek appeared to have made peace with whatever the future held. In 2019 he told CTV, “I’m not afraid of dying. I’ve lived a good life, a full life, and I’m nearing the end of that life. If it happens, why should I be afraid of that? One thing they’re not going to say at my funeral, as a part of a eulogy, is ‘He was taken from us too soon.’”
Heartbreakingly, Trebek lost his battle with cancer in November 2020. A spokesperson for the game show said in a statement, “Jeopardy! is saddened to share that Alex Trebek passed away peacefully at home early this morning, surrounded by family and friends. Thank you, Alex.” Fans took to social media to pay tribute to the beloved host and to share favorite moments from his time on the show. Contestants will have to go some way, though, to top a viral clip from late 2019. That moment not only left the host stunned, but it also touched the hearts of faithful viewers from all over the world.
Yes, in November 2019 Trebek witnessed an internet-breaking moment on the show that he hosted for 35 years. Instead of answering the question put to him, you see, one Jeopardy! contestant instead wrote a message for Trebek on his board. And upon seeing it, Trebek was almost brought to tears. Yet it wasn’t just the contestant who believed in the note he had written – all the show’s viewers stood behind it too.
To grasp the full power of the contestant’s message, however, you need first to understand Trebek’s history. As mentioned, Trebek had been hosting Jeopardy! ever since 1984, when he took over presenting duties from his friend Art Fleming. The game show’s rules are simple: contestants compete to solve problems, and their answers must be in the form of questions. Yet Jeopardy! has proved to be so popular that it’s won no less than 33 Daytime Emmys.
When the host announced in a video message to the public that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer of the pancreas, Trebek admitted that “the prognosis for this is not very encouraging.” But he said he planned to battle the disease as hard as he possibly could.
Trebek said in his video, “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. Truth told, I have to, because under the terms of my contract, I have to host Jeopardy! for three more years.”
So the game show icon seemed to be in a good frame of mind, despite the terrible blow. And people immediately came out in support of Trebek. For instance, his friend and fellow game show host Pat Sajak wrote on Twitter, “There is no one I know who is stronger and more determined, and I would never bet against him. We, and the entire country, are pulling for you, Alex.”
Other people phrased their support for Trebek in the form of a Jeopardy! answer. Ana Navarro-Cárdenas of CNN and The View wrote on social media, “Who is an extraordinary human being, gracious, a consummate professional, a gentleman, a kind soul? Final Answer: #AlexTrebek.”
Then in April 2019, after completing season 35 of the show, Trebek updated his fans and supporters on how he was doing. He said in a new video, “Despite what you may have heard, I’m feeling good, I’m continuing with my therapy, and we – by we, the staff, is already working on our next season: the 36th year of Jeopardy!”
Trebek went on, “So here, on the last day of taping for our 35th anniversary season, I wanted once again to thank you for your continuing messages of encouragement and support, particularly the many cards I’ve received from young people. I’m touched beyond words.” But as we’ve seen, the star’s battle was really only just beginning.
The following month, you see, Trebek spoke about his prognosis on Good Morning America. He told host Robin Roberts, herself a survivor of cancer, “People all over America have been sharing their good thoughts, their advice, their prayers, and I feel it is making a difference in my well-being.”
Trebek spoke candidly about his battle, telling Roberts, “My oncologist tells me I’m doing well, even though I don’t always feel it. I’ve had kidney stones. I’ve had ruptured discs. So I’m used to dealing with pain, but what I’m not used to dealing with is these surges that come on suddenly of deep, deep sadness, and it brings tears to my eyes.”
Trebek went on, “I’ve discovered in this whole episode, ladies and gentlemen, that I’m a bit of a wuss. But I’m fighting through it.” Yet he remained optimistic, saying, “My platelets, my blood counts are steady, my weight is steady… The cancer indicators, those are coming down. So I’ve got another chemo next week, and then we’ll do a review to find out where things stand.”
Regarding his chemotherapy, Trebek said, “I go in and I sit down; I joke with the nurses. And I’m there for an hour-and-a-half while they inject all of this stuff into me and then I go home and I have a good day, and then the next day, for no reason that I can fathom, it turns south on me. But that’s okay. You have to deal with it. What am I going to do?”
Trebek also mentioned in the Roberts interview that he was very grateful to be “considered an inspiration to other people.” He said, “I’ve had so many contacts from people who have survived cancer for ten years, 12 years, 14 years. I am now a 30-day survivor… I’m going to catch up to those other people.”
Trebek went on, “They have been an inspiration to me, and that’s really what it’s all about. It’s drawing attention to this particular type of devastating cancer, making people aware of it, telling them that they should take certain precautions beforehand to find out because we never discover pancreatic cancer until it’s too late, unfortunately.”
Sadly, you see, pancreatic cancer is a terrible condition, and sufferers generally have a low chance of survival. In fact, the statistics reveal that a quarter of people will likely live for only one year after diagnosis. The faster the cancer is diagnosed, though, the better prospects a person has. But even then the five-year survival rate is only 20 percent, and overall, sufferers’ chances of still being alive 60 months after diagnosis stand at about 8 percent.
So, in May 2019, Trebek shared more details of his treatment during an article on CBS Sunday Morning. There, he said that at one point while filming Jeopardy! he was “on the floor writhing in pain” because of stomach cramps. He explained, “It happened three or four times a day while we were taping. So that was a little – little rough on me.”
And the stomach problem actually turned out to be a tumor “the size of a small fist.” But no matter what, Trebek refused to stop working on the show. He said, “The producers were very kind. They said, ‘Look, if you don’t want to do the show, we’ll just cancel taping.’ I said, ‘No. We’re here. We’re doing the shows.’”
Trebek lost his hair thanks to the chemotherapy, too. He told CBS Sunday Morning, “On air I’m told that there were times when the hairpiece looked better than my real hair. So we’ll see how people react to that.” He added, “We have the summer months off. So hopefully my own hair will grow back, because I like my own hair.”
Before too long, then, the treatment appeared to be working. At the end of May 2019, for instance, Trebek told People in delight, “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.”
Trebek thanked the people who had sent him well wishes, saying, “I’ve got a couple million people out there who have expressed their good thoughts, their positive energy directed towards me and their prayers. I told the doctors, this has to be more than just the chemo, and they agreed it could very well be an important part of this.” Which may be why the sign the contestant would hold up later that year would provoke such an emotional in the host.
Yet it soon became clear that the treatment hadn’t worked as well as it had maybe first seemed. In October 2019, in an interview with Canadian TV network CTV, Trebek said he “went all the way down to numbers that correspond with a normal human being without cancer. Then all of a sudden, it blew up and went 50 per cent higher than when it was first diagnosed. Go figure.”
In the interview, the 79-year-old Trebek revealed, “I’m not afraid of dying. I’ve lived a good life, a full life, and I’m nearing the end of that life… if it happens, why should I be afraid of that? One thing they’re not going to say at my funeral, as a part of a eulogy, is, ‘He was taken from us too soon.’”
Trebek’s attitude to his condition has understandably impressed many people. And on a November 2019 episode of Jeopardy!, one contestant revealed his feelings for the host in an unmissable way. Yes, Dhruv Gaur – from Gainesville, Florida – decided to use up the money he’d banked on the show in order to send a message to Trebek.
The question posed to Gaur was, “In the title of a groundbreaking exposé of poverty in New York City slums, these three words follow ‘How the?’” The correct answer would have been, “What is, ‘Other Half Lives?’” But instead of writing that, or indeed any answer, Gaur wrote, “What is, ‘We love you, Alex.’”
Trebek asked Gaur, “Did you come up with the right one? No?” and then suddenly saw what he had actually written. “That’s very kind, thank you,” he told the young man. “Cost you $1,995. You’re left with five bucks.” But while Trebek was saying that, he appeared to be trying not to outright cry.
In fact, all the contestants on that episode of the show had been wearing purple ribbons in order to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer. Gaur was even wearing one while he showed Trebek his message. All the contestants in 2019’s Tournament of Champions would also be donating money to pancreatic cancer charity the Lustgarten Foundation.
And after his message went viral, Gaur took to Twitter to discuss it. He said, “I’m really glad I got the opportunity to say to Alex what everybody at the tournament was thinking. For context, Alex had just shared with us that he was re-entering treatment for pancreatic cancer. We were all hurting for him so badly.”
Gaur went on, “When Final Jeopardy came up, I could’ve tried to puzzle it together, but really, just kept thinking about Alex, and thought he should know. I’m just very grateful I got the opportunity to say what I know everyone was thinking. Sending all the love.” He tagged his post with #weloveyoualex.
The #weloveyoualex tag quickly took off on social media, too. One person described the video of Gaur’s message, saying, “The instant welling up of tears and emotion no viewer expected to have tonight.” A reply to that post read, “I was in the audience for this moment. Felt it then and feel it now.”
Gaur also shared something else on Twitter. He wrote, “With all the attention coming my way, I want to also re-up this play-along for pancreatic cancer on Thursday and Friday. Many of us are donating $1 for every question we get right when playing along at home to the Lustgarten Foundation for pancreatic cancer research. Join along!”
Later on that month, too, Gaur appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to talk about his viral moment. The episode of Jeopardy! had actually been recorded in September, he explained, and Trebek had just been told that he would have to undergo more chemotherapy to hold back the cancer.
Gaur said, “[Trebek] had come back to the green room and talked to all the contestants who were on the tournament, and we could really tell that it was tough for him. So when I got up there, obviously I wasn’t going to win the game or anything, so I was like, ‘I could try to figure out the right answer, or I could do something for this person who might need it right now.’”
DeGeneres brought up that Gaur had actually been on Jeopardy! before and had won a lot of money. The host asked him what he did with it, and he answered, “I go to Brown [University], which costs a lot of money, so I spent a good amount of it on tuition, and another thing I decided to do is I took like 20 friends out to eat and paid for all their meals.”
DeGeneres asked, “What has the response been like since you’ve been on the show?” Gaur told her, “I was at the launch party for this episode with my friends, and my mom texted me, and she was like, ‘You’re trending on Twitter.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, Mom, eight tweets isn’t trending.’” But as soon as he checked, he was amazed.
Gaur said, “Since then, like, it’s been really crazy. Like, I’m here. Also like Ryan Reynolds, Chrissy Teigen, like all tweeted this moment. And there’s just been like a lot of energy around this.” But there was more to come – as DeGeneres had some special gifts for Gaur hiding behind the scenes.
DeGeneres told Gaur, “I don’t know how you’re going to be watching along at home, because you don’t own a television. So I’m going to give you one so you can watch at home.” She then brought out a massive 75-inch TV for him – and also a $25,000 donation to the Lustgarten Foundation for pancreatic cancer research.
And after that exciting experience, Gaur spoke to The Brown Daily Herald student newspaper about everything that had gone on since his Jeopardy! appearance and kind message. He said, “I definitely did not expect everyone to pick up on it on social media. The world really values that, which I didn’t expect.”
But the young man said he planned to simply resume his studies after his brush with fame. The whole thing had been “completely surreal,” he told The Brown Daily Herald. He added, “I still think I haven’t entirely processed that I flew to L.A., went on the show, talked to Ellen… and that I just came back home and went to class the next day.”
Gaur concluded, “Looking back, it’s been a really cool, extremely unique journey. I learned a lot about what it’s like to have a lot of attention on you for something you did… Over this past couple weeks, [I’ve] just been really grateful for the number of people who have kind of showed up to support me.”
And true to his word, Trebek continued to host Jeopardy! throughout his cancer treatment. Talking to newspaper USA Today at the end of November 2019, he said, “[Gaur’s message] surprised me on the show, obviously. I was thrown for a loop there. I started to tear up, but that’s okay; I tear up over a lot of things.”