Patrick Swayze, 55, has had an enviable life. The actor, dancer and former professional figure skater lives close to nature on ranches he owns in California and New Mexico, where he raises cattle and Arabian horses and maintains a wildlife preserve. He's been married for more than 30 years to Lisa Niemi, whom he met in dance class. And of course famous for his starring role in "Dirty Dancing" (1987) which became a cultural touchstone for a whole generation. Subsequent hits like "Ghost" with Demi Moore (1990) solidified his image as good-guy heart throb.
Now he faces pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest forms of the disease. Less than 5 percent of patients live five years or more after diagnosis; most die within a year. The American Cancer Society estimates that 37,680 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year, most them will be over 65 years of age. About a quarter of all cases are related to smoking, and diabetes and obesity are considered to be risk factors for the disease. (Swayze smoked.) Excessive drinking may also be a risk factor.
Why is it so deadly? Patients rarely know they're sick before the cancer has reached a late stage. "Often patients first go to the doctor when they notice weight loss," says Edgar Staren, chief medical officer of the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, based in Zion, Ill. Then in a matter of days or weeks, they may develop symptoms of jaundice (about 80 percent do), which include yellow eyes and skin, clay-colored stools and dark urine. Normally, bile in the liver passes through a duct to the bowel, and turns stools brown. When the duct is blocked by a tumor in the pancreas, a fish-shaped organ that sits behind the stomach, it colors the skin and urine instead.
Some pancreatic-cancer patients may go into surgery to remove the tumor, but often the surgeons will discover in the operating room that the cancer has spread or involves blood vessels, circumstances that make it inadvisable to remove the tumor. And even when the tumor is removed, it returns in three quarters of all cases, despite chemotherapy. Patients who do not have jaundice generally experience pain and are not usually likely candidates for surgery.
Staren stresses that the difficult physical and mental effects of the disease can be addressed by psychological support, pain relief and procedures that reroute the bile. With state-of-the-art care, patients often actually feel better than they did before the diagnosis, he says. However, when symptoms return, the patient typically dies within days or weeks. Swayze has said through his representatives that he intends to continue with his normal schedule, and hopes to star in a pilot about an FBI agent, which is under consideration by the A&E network. He is being treated at Stanford Cancer Center at Stanford University by Dr. George Fisher, an oncologist who released a statement recently saying: "Patrick has a very limited amount of disease and he appears to be responding well to treatment thus far."