As I watched Alex Trabek publicly deliver an emotionally-charged commitment to battle and beat the stage 4 pancreatic cancer with which he’s recently been diagnosed, it occured to me that, in situations such as this, hope and intellect sometimes play competing roles.
At the time that I made it to the final round of tryouts for Jeopardy! in Honolulu, Hawaii, at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in 2003, I had but one nameable fear: that at some point during my life I may be unable to think clearly.
It was a fear that had been with me ever since I could remember thinking about thinking. Whether it came as the result of the mental illness with which I struggle, a devastating accident, a traumatic brain incident, or an insidious condition that seeped in slowly under the guise of aging, it’s always been the most terrifying thing I can imagine.
Aside from my lifelong battle with depression, though, I was pretty carefree at the time. The rhythm of the waves, the gentle trade winds, the vibrant hibiscus, and the near-daily rainbows made it easy. What unusually little fear I experienced while hang-gliding, skydiving, swimming with sharks, and challenging the formidable Hawaiian surf in various ways only positively supported my excited enjoyment of those activities.
It wasn’t until I was hospitalized with an acute attack of pancreatitis in 2011 that a second fear began to develop in my mind. It was discovered during a scoping procedure that I have pancreatic divisum, a congenital defect that results from the development of two inferior pancreatic ducts rather than one normal duct.
During that four-day hospital stay, I was kept on generously prescribed medication to deal with the excruciating pain that radiated from my core in waves. After a series of examinations and discussions, I was also diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis and given suggestions for how to manage it. Finally, I was informed of the increased risk for developing pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic cancer was grabbing a lot of headlines around that time. Opera singer Luciano Pavarotti and actor Patrick Swayze had each died of it just years before, and Steve Jobs died of it shortly after I got out of the hospital. By the time an acquaintance of mine died suddenly and unexpectedly from pancreatitis in 2014, the tragic stories and the memory of my own pain were enough to earn pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer a position as co-habitants of my “#2 Fear” slot.
According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for stage 4 pancreatic cancer is 1 percent. That, combined with the extremely severe pain associated with this condition, makes it one of the most feared and brutal forms of cancer. It is a devastating and discouraging diagnosis.
And yet, Alex Trabek spoke of hope. He spoke of beating the disease. This surprised me a little, as Alex is reported to be an impressively intelligent guy with a matter-of-fact demeanor and a generally logical approach to things.
As a kid, like many of us did, I revered Alex a little. While I knew he didn’t personally know all of the information on the show, I was still always impressed with his ability to at least appear comfortable with it. He gave the impression of being worldly and well-read in a way that didn’t seem probable for someone just reading the lines without any familiarity. At the very least, he spent more than 30 years actively exposed to a plethora of factual information.
Alex undoubtedly knows the statistics and understands the improbability of his survival claim. Maybe he was just putting on a brave face, and maybe genuinely making a decision to fight for survival with all you’ve got seems like the only real option in his situation. Maybe he really feels very scared and hopeless, but he decided it might be better for others if he sounded the battle horns with confidence.
I’d like to think that when it came time, hope trumped intellect and health. I’d like to think that somewhere inside of Alex Trabek, medical science, statistics, logic, and reason really have been pushed aside for the love of life, the desire to retain it, and the faith that it can be done. I’d also like to think that if I ever am in the same situation, I’ll feel the same way.