Patrick Swayze and Pancreatic Cancer

Born on August 18, 1952, Patrick Swayze was an American actor known for his roles in movies such as "Dirty Dancing" and "Ghost." The three-time Golden Globe-nominated actor was also multifaceted, making his start in production as a dancer and diving into singing and songwriting later in his career.

In March 2008, his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer shocked many, followed by his death more than a year later in September 2009.

In the United States, pancreatic cancer makes up less than 4% of diagnosed cancers. It is one of the rarest types and has distinct characteristics. Learn about Patrick Swayze's diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and the symptoms and causes of this condition.

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What Is Pancreatic Cancer?

The pancreas is an organ located in the abdomen that secretes enzymes that help with digesting food. It also releases hormones like insulin and glucagon, which control blood sugar. Pancreatic cancer is a type of cancer where cells in the pancreas begin to grow uncontrollably, forming a tumor.

Most pancreatic cancers affect the exocrine cells in the pancreas, which are the cells responsible for producing enzymes that help the body digest food. Pancreatic cancer that affects endocrine cells—the cells responsible for producing hormones—are less common.

Pancreatic cancer can spread to other organs in the body, especially those close to the pancreas, like the liver and lungs. Like other types of cancers, pancreatic cancer cells typically outsmart the immune system's ability to fight it, leading to its continuous spread.

Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer

In late 2007, Swayze started to experience a number of symptoms that led him to go to the hospital and get diagnosed. These symptoms were gastrointestinal problems, weight loss, abdominal pain, and jaundice—four notable symptoms of pancreatic cancer.

Weight Loss and Gastrointestinal Issues

Those with pancreatic cancer may have little to no appetite, as the tumor in the pancreas can affect the digestion process. This can lead to weight loss, which is seen in most patients at the time of diagnosis. Also, a tumor in the pancreas can press on the nearby stomach and intestines, which can lead to gastrointestinal problems such as indigestion, nausea, and vomiting.

Abdominal Pain

Abdominal pain is a common symptom for those with pancreatic cancer and can result from a tumor in the pancreas that presses on the spine. Those with pancreatic cancer may also have pain that starts in the abdomen and radiates into the back and worsens when they lie down.

Jaundice

Jaundice is characterized by yellowing of the eyes and skin and can be one of the first symptoms of pancreatic cancer. It happens due to the build-up of bilirubin, a substance produced from the breakdown of red blood cells.

The liver releases a liquid that aids in digestion, known as bile, which contains bilirubin. Usually, bile passes through the bile duct into the intestines, where it helps break down fats before leaving the body through stool.

However, pancreatic cancer can start or spread near the bile duct, blocking it and causing a build-up of bilirubin.

Other symptoms of pancreatic cancer can include blood clots, diabetes, and gallbladder or liver enlargement.

Causes

The direct cause of pancreatic cancer is unknown, but several risk factors have been identified. For example, smoking is an important risk factor. The chemicals in tobacco can weaken the body's immune system and damage or alter the DNA of cells, which can lead cells to grow uncontrollably.

Swayze, known to be a heavy smoker, even suggested that his smoking habits likely had something to do with his developing cancer.

Other risk factors of pancreatic cancer include:

  • Age: Most of those with pancreatic cancer are older than 45.
  • Genetics: Having a family history of pancreatic cancer or an inherited genetic disorder such as Lynch syndrome increases the risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Obesity: Those who are obese are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.
  • Chronic pancreatitis: Chronic pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) increases the risk of pancreatic cancer. Chronic pancreatitis is often a result of heavy alcohol use.

Diagnosis

Diagnosing pancreatic cancer can be difficult, especially in the early stages. The pancreas is deep inside the abdomen, making small tumors that develop in the pancreas hard to find in a physical examination.

Often, those with pancreatic cancer show no symptoms until it advances into later stages. For instance, Swayze did not go to the doctor until his symptoms got to a point where he could not ignore them.

Diagnosing pancreatic cancer usually starts with a doctor asking about a patient's personal, family, and medical history, in addition to doing a physical exam. In the physical examination, the doctor will look for symptoms that pancreatic cancer is known to cause, such as jaundice.

The doctor will then order a series of tests to confirm if a patient has pancreatic cancer. These tests can range from blood tests to, more importantly, imaging tests and sometimes laparoscopy, as these tests can more clearly find any tumors and determine if they have spread to other organs.

Treatment

Although there is no cure for pancreatic cancer, there are treatments that can alleviate symptoms and improve survival. These treatment methods can include surgery to remove part or all of the pancreas and other organs affected by pancreatic cancer, in addition to chemotherapy, radiation, and immunotherapy.

Chemotherapy uses medications to kill cancer cells. These medications are usually given intravenously or by injection. Radiation therapy is the use of beams of energy to kill cancer cells. And immunotherapy, typically given intravenously or orally, uses medications that help the immune system recognize cancer cells and fight them.

Swayze's cancer treatment included chemotherapy and an experimental drug called vatalanib, which helps to stop the enzyme activity that promotes the growth of cancer cells. The drug has yet to be approved for pancreatic cancer, and clinical trials are ongoing.

Coping

As pancreatic cancer is a serious condition, many people may have trouble coping with its diagnosis. However, there are ways to emotionally and physically manage pancreatic cancer.

Swayze approached his diagnosis positively, eager to go through his treatment, spread awareness, and find comfort in his loved ones. Those with pancreatic cancer can do the same, in addition to joining an online support group, speaking openly about their condition, and creating a good support system.

Also, physically coping with the side effects of pancreatic cancer and treatment can be difficult. Many face issues such as pain, fatigue, side effects from therapy, and dietary problems. It's important to tell your doctor about any challenges you face during treatment, so your doctor can help you find ways to manage them.

For example, your doctor might prescribe medications for pain and nausea, while healthy lifestyle changes—such as getting proper rest, staying as active as possible, and maintaining proper nutrition—can help you feel your best.

Swayze stayed active by continuing to act while receiving cancer treatment, most notably starring in the A&E drama, "The Beast."

Frequently Asked Questions

How long was Patrick Swayze sick with pancreatic cancer before he died?

Patrick Swayze died 20 months after his diagnosis.

How old was Patrick Swayze when he died?

Patrick Swayze was 57 years old when he died.

What kind of cancer did Patrick Swayze have?

Patrick Swayze had stage 4 pancreatic cancer, also known as metastatic pancreatic cancer. This means that the cancer had spread from the pancreas to other organs.

A Word From Verywell

Patrick Swayze inspired many fans long before he had pancreatic cancer, but his diagnosis and the way he approached it brought more attention to the condition and resonated with those affected by it.

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10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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