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On 70th birthday, Patrick Swayze's pancreatic cancer legacy lives on

“He absolutely changed the conversation that we were having about this disease," advocates say.
Patrick Swayze
Patrick Swayze gained fame after starring in movies including "Dirty Dancing" and "Ghost." He died in 2009, less than two years after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Aaron Rapoport / Corbis via Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Like all people who die before their time, Patrick Swayze seems forever young. So it’s hard to believe he would have turned 70 on Thursday if it were not for pancreatic cancer.

The actor, dancer and singer was one of the first high-profile patients to go public with his diagnosis for a disease that few Americans knew about and few researchers studied at the time.

Before Alex Trebek and before Steve Jobs, it was Swayze who turned the world’s attention to the lack of early detection and treatment for a particularly deadly cancer. It grows silently deep inside the abdomen, producing few warning signs until it has spread to other parts of the body.

Almost 50,000 Americans will die from the disease this year, according to the National Cancer Institute. It ranks as the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the U.S.

Diagnosed in 2007, Swayze openly talked about his symptoms and treatment, raising awareness before his death in 2009 at the age of 57.

“He was very impactful,” Dr. Joe Hines, director of the UCLA Agi Hirshberg Center for Pancreatic Disease in Los Angeles and a scientific advisory board member of the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research, told TODAY.

“It’s a disease that — because it’s been rare and most people don’t do very well from that traditionally — there wasn’t a lot of attention and there weren’t a lot of researchers focused on it. Now, over the past decade, with advocacy like Mr. Swayze did and others, there’s excellent science going on and that clearly is translating into improved treatment.”

Julie Fleshman, president and CEO of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, called Swayze “a turning point” in efforts to raise awareness.

“He absolutely changed the conversation that we were having about this disease. He put a real face behind it,” Fleshman said.

“He gave people a reason to say, ‘Oh, Patrick Swayze, pancreatic cancer, wow. If there was nothing that could be done for him, this is something that we really need to get involved in and we really need to change.’”

Patrick Swayze
"He ended up contributing so much to the pancreatic cancer community," Julie Fleshman, president and CEO of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, said of Patrick Swayze.Aaron Rapoport / Corbis via Getty Images

Actor noticed ‘gigantic’ indigestion issues

Fleshman called a 2009 TV interview Swayze did with Barbara Walters a particularly big deal. The “Dirty Dancing” and “Ghost” star revealed the painful stomach issues and other symptoms that would ultimately lead to his diagnosis.

“I tried to have champagne, and it would be like pouring acid, you know, on an open wound,” Swayze recalled about a New Year’s Eve celebration.

“My indigestion issues got gigantic and constant. And then I started thinking, I’m getting skinny. I dropped about 20 pounds in the blink of an eye. And then when you see it in the mirror, when all of a sudden, you pull your eyes down and the bottom(s) of your eyes go yellow and jaundice sets in — then you know something’s wrong.”

Like 80% of pancreatic cancer patients, Swayze was diagnosed when the disease had already spread. That’s because the symptoms, including stomach pain and unexplained weight loss, can be vague and chalked up to other causes.

No lump to feel

The pancreas, a 6-inch long gland that helps the body break down food and regulate blood sugar, lies between the stomach and the spine, so there’s no lump to feel in the way a woman might feel a tumor in her breast.

“We (also) don’t have a blood test or radiology tests that we can do to detect it early — yet. There are a lot of people working on that,” Hines said. “Once there’s a new way to detect these earlier, the field is going to really change a lot.”

Treatments include surgery — but only for the minority of patients whose cancer has not spread when they're diagnosed — and chemotherapy.

But pancreatic cancer is a very a difficult disease to treat — it’s aggressive and it’s hard for treatments to actually make it into the area where the tumor is located, Hines noted.

Fleshman compared it to getting past the rind on a watermelon.

“Imagine a watermelon, and the tumor is in the middle of the watermelon. There’s that thick membrane that goes around the watermelon, the green skin — you can’t get through it. There’s a similar microenvironment that’s around the pancreatic cancer tumor,” she said.

"One Last Dance" Las Vegas Movie Premiere Hosted by The Nevada Ballet Theatre Featuring Patrick Swayze and Lisa Niemi
Patrick Swayze shares a happy moment with his wife, Lisa Niemi, in 2005. She has continued to raise pancreatic cancer awareness after his death.Denise Truscello / WireImage

Reasons for hope

Still, both Hines and Fleshman said there has been real progress made in helping pancreatic cancer patients live longer in the 13 years since Swayze’s death. The five-year survival rate has almost doubled in that time, from 5% to 11%, Fleshman said, crediting new improved drugs.

Pancreatic cancer patients now undergo genetic testing to see what type of treatment would work best for their particular tumor, Hines noted.

“On occasion, we will have a patient who gets treated and there’s a complete response, meaning the entire tumor has been treated and has gone. That never happened a decade ago,” he said.

Every major medical institution around the country now has a pancreatic cancer research program “and those didn’t exist 20 years ago,” Fleshman added. “There’s a tremendous amount of momentum.”

Fleshman and Niemi advocate for increased federal research funding for pancreatic cancer on Capitol Hill.
Fleshman and Niemi advocate for increased federal research funding for pancreatic cancer on Capitol Hill.Courtesy Pancreatic Cancer Action Network

Recognizing the symptoms

Pancreatic cancer is most often diagnosed in older adults, but it can affect anyone, including people in their 20s, Hines noted.

“Most patients, when they first get their diagnosis, want to know why this has happened and it’s usually hard to have a good answer for that,” he said.

Smoking, obesity and a family history of pancreatic cancer are risk factors.

Black Americans are more likely to get pancreatic cancer than any other racial or ethnic group, data from the National Cancer Institute showed.

Hines advised people to watch for two warning signs in particular:

  • The onset of persistent abdominal pain: “If it lasts for many days or weeks, it’s worth getting checked out,” he said.
  • A new diagnosis of diabetes: “(In) patients who are thin and don’t have another reason to have diabetes, I’ve had a few really smart referring doctors figure out that actually the cause of it was the patient was forming pancreas cancer,” Hines noted.

Meanwhile, Swayze’s pancreatic cancer legacy endures.

“He was somebody that we all felt like we knew,” Fleshman said. “When someone like that is diagnosed with a disease like pancreatic cancer, it just put a spotlight on the disease that we had never had the opportunity for before.”