Patrick Swayze and Pancreatic Cancer

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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 started his career as a dancer before diving into singing and songwriting and, later, acting.

In March 2008, Swayze announced that he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The disease eventually took his life 18 months 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 of cancer but also one of the most aggressive.

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Learn about Patrick Swayze's diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and the symptoms and causes of this potentially deadly cancer. This article also explains how pancreatic cancer is diagnosed and treated, and the ways to better cope if faced with a cancer diagnosis.

What Is Pancreatic Cancer?

The pancreas is an organ located in the abdomen that secretes enzymes that aid with the digestion of food. It also releases hormones like insulin and glucagon that 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 digestive enzymes. Pancreatic cancer that affects endocrine cells—the cells responsible for producing hormones—is less common.

Pancreatic cancer can spread (metastasize) to other organs in the body, especially those close to the pancreas like the liver or lungs.

Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer

In late 2007, Swayze started to experience symptoms that led him to seek a diagnosis. The symptoms included nausea and vomiting, unexplained weight loss, abdominal pain, and jaundice—four common symptoms of pancreatic cancer.

Weight Loss and Gastrointestinal Problems

People with pancreatic cancer may have little to no appetite. This is because the tumor triggers the release of inflammatory substances (called cytokines) that alter the perception of hunger in the brain. This can lead to unintended weight loss, something that is commonly experienced in people with advanced pancreatic cancer.

A tumor in the pancreas can also press on the nearby stomach and intestines, which can lead to indigestion, nausea, and vomiting. These can further contribute to the loss of appetite and weight loss.

Abdominal Pain

Abdominal pain is a common symptom in people with pancreatic cancer. It often occurs when a tumor presses on the spine, causing pain in the abdomen that radiates into the back. The pain can worsen when lying down.

Jaundice

Jaundice is the yellowing of the eyes and skin. It is caused by the build-up of bilirubin, a yellowish substance produced from the breakdown of red blood cells.

Bilirubin is usually removed from the body through the liver and bile duct. But when pancreatic cancer is advanced, the tumor and inflammation can block the bile duct, leading to the accumulation of bilirubin in the bloodstream.

Jaundice is often one of the main reasons why people with pancreatic cancer seek a diagnosis.

Recap

People with pancreatic cancer often seek a diagnosis when "classic" symptoms appear. These include nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, unintended weight loss, abdominal pain radiating down the back, and jaundice.

Causes

The cause of pancreatic cancer is unknown, but several risk factors have been identified.

Smoking is one such factor. The chemicals in tobacco smoke can weaken the body's immune response, including natural killer cells (NKCs) that help fight cancer. Smoking can also damage the genetic material of cells, called DNA, causing them to grow uncontrollably into tumors.

Swayze, known to be a heavy smoker, believed that smoking had something to do with his cancer.

Other risk factors of pancreatic cancer include:

  • Age: Most people 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: People 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.

Recap

Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include older age, smoking, a family history of pancreatic cancer, obesity, chronic pancreatitis, and a history of heavy drinking.

Diagnosis

Diagnosing pancreatic cancer can be difficult, especially in the early stages. The pancreas is deep inside the abdomen, making small tumors hard to find in a physical exam and even on imaging tests.

People with pancreatic cancer often have no symptoms until the disease is advanced. Swayze did not go to the doctor until his symptoms got to a point where he could no longer ignore them.

The diagnosis of pancreatic cancer usually starts with a review of your medical history and your family's medical history. A physical exam will look for signs of pancreatic cancer like jaundice or other less overt symptoms such as itchy skin or fluid in the abdomen (ascites).

The doctor will then order tests that aid in the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. These include blood tests like the CA19-9 that detect substances in the blood linked to pancreatic cancer. There will also be imaging tests like ultrasound, computerized tomography (CT), or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look for abnormalities in the pancreas.

Pancreatic cancer is definitively diagnosed with a biopsy. The involves the removal of a sample of the tumor for evaluation in a lab.

Recap

Pancreatic cancer is diagnosed with a review of your medical history, a physical exam, blood tests, and imaging studies like an ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI scan. A biopsy of the tumor is needed to definitively diagnose the disease.

Treatment

While pancreatic cancer is extremely difficult to cure, there are treatments that can alleviate symptoms and improve survival. The treatment may include surgery to remove part or all of the pancreas affected by cancer.

Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, or a combination of therapies may also be used, each of which fights the disease differently:

  • Chemotherapy uses medications that kill fasting-replicating cells like cancer. It can damage other fast-replicating cells like hair and tissues of the digestive tract. The medications are given intravenously (into a vein) or by injection.
  • Radiation therapy uses focused beams of radiation to directly kill cancer cells.
  • Immunotherapy, typically given intravenously or by mouth, 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 blocks the enzyme that promotes cancer growth. As of 2022, the drug has yet to be approved, and clinical trials are ongoing.

Despite the fact that the disease is mostly incurable, pancreatic cancer has the potential to be cured if caught very early. Up to 10% of people who receive an early diagnosis become cancer-free after treatment.

If pancreatic cancer is advanced and a person is unlikely to benefit from treatment, your doctor will offer palliative care. Palliative care is used to minimize symptoms so that you remain as comfortable as possible for as long as possible.

Some people may opt solely for palliative care when diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It's a highly personal choice and one made with full disclosure of the potential benefits and risks of treatment. For some, it is more important to maintain the highest possible quality of life rather than undergo treatments that may be toxic and difficult to bear.

Recap

The treatment of pancreatic cancer may involve surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or a combination of these. If the cancer is advanced, your doctor will focus on palliative care to provide comfort and minimize symptoms.

Coping

Because pancreatic cancer is associated with a high rate of death, many people have trouble coping with the diagnosis. However, there are ways to emotionally and physically manage the disease regardless of how advanced it is.

Swayze approached his diagnosis positively, eager to go through his treatment, spread awareness, and find comfort in his loved ones.

People with pancreatic cancer can do the same. In addition to joining a support group, you need to build a support system of people who can comfort and encourage you during treatment. This not only includes family and friends but also your medical team, counselors, therapists, and social workers.

Coping with the side effects of treatment can also be difficult. It is important to tell your doctor about any challenges you face during treatment as there are ways to relieve many of them.

For example, your doctor can prescribe medications to relieve pain, nausea, mouth sores, and even anxiety. Healthy lifestyle choices—including getting enough rest, staying as active as possible, and maintaining proper nutrition—can help you better cope with treatment.

Recap

If you have pancreatic cancer, it is important to build a support network of family, friends, medical professionals, and support groups. You also need to keep active, stay positive, and maintain good nutrition to remain physically and emotionally strong.

Summary

Patrick Swayze was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2008 and became a symbol of hope and inspiration for those living with the disease. He also shed light on a type of cancer that many people don't understand.

The diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is often delayed because the symptoms may not appear until the disease is advanced. People with pancreatic cancer will often seek a diagnosis when symptoms like jaundice and unintended weight loss develop. By this stage, the disease is likely advanced.

The diagnosis of pancreatic cancer involves a review of your medical history, a physical exam, blood tests, imaging studies, and a biopsy of the tumor. The treatment may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy, and palliative care (designed to minimize pain and provide comfort).

Following Swayze's example, people with pancreatic cancer are strongly encouraged to build a strong support network, keep healthy and fit, and remain positive.

A Word From Verywell

Patrick Swayze inspired many fans long before he had pancreatic cancer, but his diagnosis and the way he approached the disease resonated with those who are also affected by it. What is important is to make the treatment choices that are right for you.

Some people may opt solely for palliative care when diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It's a highly personal choice and one made with full disclosure of the potential benefits and risks. For some, it is more important to maintain the highest possible quality of life rather than undergo treatments that may be toxic and difficult to bear.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What kind of cancer did Patrick Swayze have?

    Patrick Swayze had stage 4 pancreatic cancer, also known as metastatic pancreatic cancer. The word metastatic is used to describe cancer that has spread from its point of origin (in this case, the pancreas) to other areas of the body. Stage 4 pancreatic cancer is the final stage of the disease.

  • What is the number one cause of pancreatic cancer?

    The exact cause of pancreatic cancer is unknown. However, most gene mutations leading to pancreatic cancer are acquired from certain risk factors like smoking and obesity. Inherited gene mutations are less common but can increase the risk.

  • What is the survival rate of pancreatic cancer?

    The survival rate of pancreatic cancer depends on whether the cancer is localized (has not spread), regional (spread to nearby areas), or distant (spread to distant areas). These rates are are rough estimates of survivability over five years and based on pancreatic cancer data from 2011 to 2017.

    • Localized: 42 percent
    • Regional: 14 percent
    • Distant: 3 percent
    • All stages of surveillance, epidemiology, and end results (SEER) combined: 11 percent

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13 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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