Paul Batura: What is courage? Alex Trebek continues to show us the answer as he battles cancer
After a brief reprieve earlier this summer from treatment for stage 4 pancreatic cancer, Jeopardy’s Alex Trebek revealed this week that his condition has worsened, forcing a resumption of chemotherapy.
In a candid interview with Canada’s CTV Television Network, the veteran gameshow host acknowledged that sores in his mouth — a side effect of the chemo — may force him to step away from the iconic program.
“I will keep doing it as long as my skills do not diminish,” Trebek reflected, before admitting soberly, “and they have started to diminish.”
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Time can sometimes seem to stand still on television. You pick up the remote, press a button and then another and your favorite show flashes on the screen. Thanks to good make-up and the right lighting, the stars of the program often seem ageless, forever young and vibrant.
It’s never really the case. No one can stay forever young and vibrant. So much of what we see in either celebrity or on the screen is an illusion. Deep down we know it — but we’re easily swayed otherwise.
In his beautifully tailored suits and neatly trimmed salt and pepper hair, Trebek looks the same to me today as he did 35 years ago when he began hosting the legendary program. It’s just not the case.
A whole lot has changed over the course of the past four decades, of course, but through it all, the Canadian-born host has remained behind his podium, like a faithful sentry at his post.
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But illness and infirmity have a way of rocking routine, and Trebek's seeming invincibility is exposing his mortality.
“There are weaknesses I feel in my body,” he confided. “But I can always suck it up when it comes to tape the show.”
Anybody who lives long enough is familiar with Trebek’s dilemma. According to the Centers for Disease Control, over 20 percent of Americans live in some form of chronic pain. Maybe you’re one of them.
Try as you may, you can’t seem to find a cure, so you carry on. Desperate, you pop a pill — but you still feel the pain. What can you do? You need to make a living, so you somehow make a way — even if it hurts.
It’s heartbreaking to watch someone suffer, especially so publicly, but it strikes me there is redeemable value in Trebek’s ordeal. That’s because the man who always seems to have the answers is demonstrating that life isn’t all neat and tidy with accessible or easy solutions to complex questions.
Sometimes the treatment works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
But he’s also reminding us there can be purpose in pain – and that suffering never leaves a person the same.
One of my favorite professors in college was a Catholic priest named John Madigan. He came late to his vocation. Madigan had first enjoyed a successful career on Wall Street before answering “the call” to ministry. He closed each class with a prayer, urging everyone in the room to “carry on until they carry you out.”
I have thought about that prayer recently, especially when I encounter or hear of courageous people like Alex Trebek.
We live in a world that often seems allergic to suffering. Only a fool encourages it — but it’s truly the wise like Trebek who embrace it, recognizing that God often uses our hurts and struggles to get our attention — and transform us or others through it.
“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be,” wrote Charles Dickens. “I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into better shape.”
That the 78-year-old Trebek has expressed his profound gratitude to everyone for their prayers suggests to me he isn’t fearing the destination of his final "Jeopardy!" round.
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“I’m not afraid of dying,” Trebek recently said. “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.’”
We may quibble with Trebek’s conclusion, if not the sentiment behind it. That’s because fans of “Jeopardy!” and its popular host would prefer him to live for at least another thousand years.
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