Late Actor Patrick Swayze's Pancreatic Cancer Legacy Remembered as 'Very Impactful'
- Patrick Swayne would have turned 70 years old on Thursday, July 18, 2022.
- He died in 2009 at the age of 57 from pancreatic cancer.
- Swayze is described as ‘very impactful’ for using his celebrity to spread awareness.
- Nearly 50,000 Americans will die from pancreatic cancer this year, according to the National Cancer Institute.
- It’s the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the U.S.
“He was very impactful,” said Dr. Joe Hines, director of the University of California Los Angeles Hirshberg Center for Pancreatic Disease.Read More
In an interview with NBC’s TODAY show, Hines said Swayze’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis came before more recent high profile deaths, including ‘Jeopardy!’ host Alex Trebeck and Apple founder Steve Jobs.
“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,” Hines said.
“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, said Swayze’s star power helped 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.’”
Fleshman recalled a 2009 TV interview Swayze did with ABC’s Barbara Walters.
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 during the interview.
“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.”
Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosis
Nearly 50,000 Americans will die from pancreatic cancer this year, according to the National Cancer Institute. It’s the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the U.S.
Pancreatic cancer is often an aggressive disease, so early detection of it is crucial. Dr. Anirban Maitra, co-leader of the Pancreatic Cancer Moon Shot at MD Anderson Cancer Center.
“Because the pancreas is inside the abdomen, it often doesn’t have symptoms that would tell you that something is wrong with your pancreas. By the time individuals walk into the clinic with symptoms like jaundice, weight loss, back pain, or diabetes, it’s often very late in the stage of the disease.”
When the disease is detected earlier, however, a wider number of treatment options may exist. “Each year in the United States, about 53,000 patients get pancreatic cancer,” said Dr. Maitra.
“And unfortunately, most will die from this disease within a few months to a year or so from the diagnosis,” he says. “And the reason for that is that most individuals, about 80%, will actually present with what we called advanced disease, which means that the cancer has either spread beyond the pancreas or into other organs like the liver, and so you cannot take it out with surgeries.”
For 80% of pancreatic cancer patients, by the time they’re diagnosed, the disease has already spread.
Doctors say that’s because the symptoms, including stomach pain and unexplained weight loss, can be vague and chalked up to other causes.
Treatments include surgery and chemotherapy. But pancreatic cancer is a very a difficult disease to treat — it’s aggressive and it’s hard to treat the exact area where the tumor is located.
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 and improved drugs.
Also, pancreatic cancer patients now undergo genetic testing to see what type of treatment would work best for their particular tumor.
Dr. William S. Breitbart, Chairs the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, says any cancer diagnosis can be difficult to bear.
“Of course, this has an impact on the prognosis of the disease,” Dr. Maitra added, “because patients who have advanced disease, the treatments we have available for them, they work somewhat, but they don’t really do as well as we would like.”
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.
Dr. Joe Hines, director of the University of California Los Angeles Hirshberg Center for Pancreatic Disease, says there are two major 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 Hollywood celebrity has only been bolstered by his pancreatic cancer legacy.
“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.”