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In the 11 years since Patrick Swayze’s death from pancreatic cancer, the late actor’s widow, Lisa Niemi Swayze, has continued to work tirelessly to bring awareness to the disease that abruptly ended their decades-long love affair. “His fight was so heroic,” Lisa tells Yahoo Life. “And just because he's gone, doesn't mean that fights over.”
Swayze is kicking off the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network or PanCAN’s annual Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month with 30 stories over 30 days. It’s an initiative that gives survivors, caregivers, families and researchers digital space to share their experiences with what PanCAN describes as the world’s toughest cancer, with a five-year survival rate of just 10 percent.
“It's such a tough disease that you really have to come at it with all guns blazing and thinking outside the box,” Lisa says. “And [Patrick] worked very hard to get into a clinical trial, which actually he responded really well to. And it's one of the reasons why I had him for another 22 months after diagnosis, which is actually rare, because in stage IV, typically life expectancy is three to six months.”
Lisa still remembers how she and Patrick found out that his persistent stomach pain was more than just a funky stomach.
“One day he walked over to me and he says, ‘Hey do my eyes look yellow?’ I looked, I went, yeah, they do. I said ‘we better get you in to see the doctor.’ And he said, ‘well, maybe next week.’ And I'm like, ‘no, no, no, whatever it is, this is not normal.’ And we called the doctor…about the yellowness, the jaundice, and we went straight to a CT,” Lisa recalls. “It was a grueling 24 hours before we got the results back that it was pancreatic cancer… And that was, I tell you what, it's the worst day of anybody’s life to get that kind of diagnosis with a loved one.”
Giving other families hope, more time and access to the best treatment possible are among the many reasons why Swayze is working with PanCAN. “It's a multi-faceted organization. If you're a patient you can call, get a human being on the phone and get information about clinical trials, what treatments are out there,” she says. “They do tremendous grants for researchers. It’s like a one-stop shop.”
PanCAN is highlighting the urgent need for more research and funding, and encouraging everyone to get involved in the fight against pancreatic cancer which, according to the organization, is the third leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States.
With the recent passing of game show icon Alex Trebek and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg from pancreatic cancer, there is more awareness of the disease. But Lisa says now is the time to keep pushing for more research.
“When Patrick was diagnosed, there were maybe four or five options. We always kept the next option on standby, cause the cancer gets wise and the treatment doesn't work anymore,” she says. “But since then, there've been tremendous advances in molecular profiling that really helps to shortcut what particular treatments will work for you.”
After it was confirmed that Patrick had pancreatic cancer, his wife recalls him saying, “I’m a dead man,” because the outcome is often bleak. Lisa is hopeful that won’t be the reality in the very near future.
“Patrick’s doctor up at Stanford, he's very much a realist and he said, ‘You know, I never thought I'd say this, but I believe that we will come through with some breakthrough treatments in our lifetime… and I didn't think that before.’”
When asked what Patrick would think about her dedication to fighting pancreatic cancer, Lisa says, “I think he wants me to do well and be happy. And at the same time, I think he likes it that I'm tough enough to keep fighting. So he'd probably be going okay, sweetheart, you go girl, you get it done.”
November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness month. To learn more about PanCAN’s research initiatives and how you can take action all month, including on World Pancreatic Cancer Day (Nov. 19), visit pancan.org and follow PanCAN on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
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