Patrick Swayze was a beloved US actor and dancer who had a string of hit movies in the 1980s and early 1990s. Many still fondly remember his turns in the surprise hit “Dirty Dancing”, heart-wrenching drama “Ghost”, and the adrenaline-fueled “Point Break” directed by the future Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow.
Having spent most of the 1990s appearing in independent movies, his career was on another upswing in the mid-noughties following a series of well-received roles on the big screen (“Donnie Darko”) and the small screen (“The Beast”). However, in 2009, just weeks after his 57th birthday, Swayze passed away.
How did Patrick Swayze die? He died of pancreatic cancer, which had already advanced to stage IV by the time it was diagnosed. Despite aggressive treatment, the cancer ultimately proved terminal.
What Is Pancreatic Cancer?
Pancreatic cancer is a condition that occurs when the pancreas cells start growing and multiplying out of control. This can be very dangerous, seeing as the pancreas is one of the most important organs in the body. In addition to producing enzymes that play a key role in the digestion process, the pancreas is also responsible for synthesizing hormones that allow the body to keep blood sugar levels under control.
According to the American Cancer Society, more than 56,000 Americans are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, while another 45,000 die from it each year. It accounts for 3% of all cancer diagnoses and 7% of all cancer deaths in the United States. The high mortality rates stem from the fact that this cancer is usually diagnosed in the later stages due to the absence of any noticeable symptoms early in the disease.
What Causes Pancreatic Cancer?
As with all other types of cancer, the cause of pancreatic cancer remains unknown. Doctors know that it begins when malignant cells in the pancreas start growing out of control and forming tumors, eventually outnumbering the healthy cells. However, they don’t yet know exactly what triggers this process.
Extensive research suggests that certain factors may increase your risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Some of these risk factors include:
- Heavy smoking and drinking
- High-fat diets with not enough fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods
- Obesity and/or lack of physical activity
- Chronic inflammation of the pancreas
- Occupational exposure to pesticides and other chemicals
- Liver damage
A family history of pancreatic cancer is also considered a major risk factor. Children can sometimes also inherit certain gene mutations from their parents, which could result in syndromes that may increase their risk of pancreatic cancer. These include Lynch syndrome (mutations in the MLH1 or MSH2 genes), Peutz-Jeghers syndrome (mutations in the STK11 gene), and familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome, which is associated with a variety of eye and skin melanomas.
This cancer strikes women and men in equal numbers. However, the National Cancer Institute warns that African-Americans are up to 67% more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than any other racial group.
What Are the Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer?
As already explained, pancreatic cancer typically doesn’t cause symptoms in the early stages. Even when it starts exhibiting symptoms, they can be very mild at first and include the following:
- Loss of appetite accompanied by weight loss
- Pain in the lower back or the upper abdomen
- Depression and fatigue
- Late-onset diabetes (especially in African-Americans)
- Yellow tinge of the skin (sometimes also the whites of the eyes)
How Is Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosed?
If you suspect you may have pancreatic cancer, you should immediately schedule an appointment with your doctor. They will first examine your symptoms and review your medical history before ordering one or more of the following tests to check if you really have pancreatic cancer:
- Blood tests that look for the pancreatic cancer tumor marker CA 19-9
- A biopsy to obtain a tissue sample from the pancreas for examination
- An MRI or CT scan to inspect your pancreas for any cancerous growth
- An endoscopic ultrasound that provides actual video of your pancreas
After your doctor has diagnosed pancreatic cancer, they will have to assign a stage which will also inform their choice of an appropriate treatment. As a rule, there are four stages of cancer development:
- Stage I: the cancerous growth is only present in the pancreas
- Stage II: other neighboring tissues are also affected by the cancer
- Stage III: the cancer has advanced to major blood vessels in your body
- Stage IV: the cancer has spread to the liver and/or other organs
Like Patrick Swayze, many pancreatic cancer patients only get diagnosed once they reach Stage IV. While the cancer is incurable at that point, there are still some treatments that can improve your quality of life.
How Is Pancreatic Cancer Treated?
As a rule, surgical removal of the cancerous growths is the go-to treatment option for pancreatic cancer. However, this is only possible if the cancer is diagnosed in the early stages, before it spreads to the lymph nodes and reaches other organs (most often the liver) through the blood vessels. In rare cases, surgery may also be an option in stage III pancreatic cancer.
If you were diagnosed at stages III or IV, there are still treatments available. While they usually can’t cure pancreatic cancer, they may be able to prevent its further growth and improve your quality of life, as well as life expectancy. These include chemotherapy drugs – both oral and injectable – like gemcitabine, erlotinib, paclitaxel, and capecitabine, as well as chemoradiation therapy.
As it grows, the tumor might start pressing on nearby organs and nerves, causing a lot of pain in the process. To relieve the pain, your doctor might cut the nerves that are causing the sensation or opt for a less invasive method that involves an injectable pain medication. Again, this won’t help you get rid of pancreatic cancer, but it will help you get rid of the associated pain.
In addition, the cancerous growth may block the bile ducts in your gallbladder, thus impairing your digestive function. If this happens, your doctor may recommend surgery to build a direct connection between the gallbladder and the small intestine to bypass this blockage.
Scientists are working hard at finding alternative drugs and treatments for pancreatic cancer, many of which have already entered the clinical trial stages. Taking part in one of these trials will allow you to test some of these new treatments for free. If you’re interested in clinical trials, you should ask your doctor about them. They may recommend a specific treatment or give you helpful tips on where to look for one.
Early Detection Can Improve Your Outlook
Despite being the fourth most lethal cancer in the US, pancreatic cancer is rarely talked about. However, the answer to the question how did Patrick Swayze die, the deaths of soul legend Aretha Franklin and the celebrated actor Alan Rickman from the same condition, as well as the beloved “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek’s recent diagnosis announcement have got more people talking about pancreatic cancer.
The earlier you receive a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, the better your chances of full recovery. While MRI and endoscopic ultrasounds aren’t available to general public, your doctor may recommend one or both if you have a family history of pancreatic cancer or a genetic condition that may increase your risk of the disease. Doctors have successfully identified and treated pancreatic cancer in many high-risk patients, so if you are one of them, make sure to ask your doctor for an MRI scan and/or an endoscopic ultrasound.