Patrick Swayze's Fight with Pancreatic Cancer

Patrick Swayze and wife Lisa Niemi - August 23, 2005. Daniel J. Barry/WireImage/Getty Images

Beloved Dirty Dancing and Ghost actor, Patrick Swayze was a heavy smoker for much of his life.

Diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer early in 2008, he acknowledged that excessive drinking and smoking had likely played a part in his illness during a January, 2009 interview with Barbara Walters.

Symptoms that Something is Wrong First Appear

Late in 2007, Patrick began having problems with indigestion and was quickly losing weight. indigestion issues got gigantic and constant," he told Walters. "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 of your eyes go yellow and jaundice sets in -- then you know something's wrong."

Medical tests revealed that the actor had a mass in his pancreas that turned out to be stage IV pancreatic cancer.  Worse, there was another small mass on his liver. The cancer had spread, and because of that, was inoperable.

Pancreatic cancer is considered a silent killer, because the symptoms are few to none in the early stages.  It's not until the disease is in its advanced stages that people usually notice that something isn't quite right with their body.  By then, it's often too late.

A Strong Will to Live

Told he had just a few months to live, Patrick Swayze beat those odds by a long shot, fighting the disease with fierce determination.

He enrolled in a clinical trial at Stanford University in California received experimental chemotherapy treatments there for a period of time.

He also took on an acting role in a television series called "The Beast" and completed filming on 16 episodes during the summer and fall of 2008, no small feat.

He was in treatment throughout and in significant pain, but he refused painkiller medications available to him because he felt that while they took the edge off the pain, they also took the edge off of his mental acuity. 

However, the cancer eventually overtook him. Twenty months after diagnosis, Patrick Swayze died on Sept. 14, 2009 at the age of 57.

He left the love of his life behind, Lisa Niemi Swayze. They met when she walked into his mother's dance studio.  She was just 16 and he was 20.  It was love at first sight, and they stayed at each other's side from then on, through thick and thin.

Worth Fighting For: Love, Loss and Moving Forward

In the years following his death, Lisa wrote a book about those last months of Patrick's life, entitled "Worth Fighting For: Love, Loss and Moving Forward."

Published in October of 2012, the book details what life was like as they fought Patrick's cancer - the decisions that had to be made, and the delicate balance of hope and reality that they continually navigated.


They refused to bury their heads in the sand about the nature of his illness, but remained optimistic throughout. They thought of themselves as optimistic realists.

As they had gone through all of their married life together, they faced this challenge head on and shoulder to shoulder, partners to the very end.

Cigarette Smoking and Pancreatic Cancer

Cigarette smoking is a significant risk factor for pancreatic cancer, with smokers being two to three times more likely to develop the disease than non-smokers.

Patrick Swayze smoked during his cancer treatments, receiving public criticism for it.  That's not surprising, and is understandable.  Cigarette toxins certainly didn't aid in the therapy he was undergoing.

That said, any smoker or ex-smoker knows just how stressful smoking cessation can be, and to do it while facing the challenges Mr. Swayze had in front of him, would only compound it.

I would never recommend continuing to smoke, but at the same time, would not presume to pass judgment on someone who does in the midst of a life-altering situation such as what Patrick Swayze faced.  He met the challenges head on and with tremendous courage. 

As the saying goes, 

"You Can't Really Understand Another Person's Experience Until You've Walked a Mile in their Shoes."

Rest in peace, Patrick Swayze.  You are missed and will always be remembered.

See also: Cancers Linked to Tobacco Use

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