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Lisa Niemi: Healing From the Loss of Patrick Swayze

The dancer, writer, and horse woman channels her grief into advocating for pancreatic cancer research.
By Linda Formichelli
WebMD Magazine - Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Since 2009, when actor Patrick Swayze died from pancreatic cancer, his widow, Lisa Niemi, a dancer, writer, and yoga practitioner, has focused not only on her own healing process, but on leading efforts to fight the disease in this country.  WebMD the Magazine sat down with Niemi and asked her about her grieving, her advocacy work, and her thoughts on marriage and self-care.

A little more than a year ago, your husband, Patrick Swayze, passed away from pancreatic cancer. How are you doing these days? As you look back on this very tough time, do any life lessons stand out?

For quite some time, I couldn't see a damn lesson in sight. It was just tough. What lessons did appear to me came out very, very subtly. Mostly it was about living in the moment. Every day that he was alive and I was alive was a victory, and it didn't matter what was going to happen in the future or what happened in the past.

You've taken a leadership role in the battle against cancer. What are you doing right now?

We've started the Patrick Swayze Pancreas Research Fund at Stanford University. Also, I'm going to be a spokesperson for the Pancreatic Action Network. Of the five big cancers, pancreatic cancer is woefully underfunded.

You and Patrick wrote a memoir, The Time of My Life, which came out two weeks before he died. What has the response been from readers and fans?

My brother had a neighbor who read the book, and he turned to my brother and said, "Wow, Patrick was really a big star." My brother was like, "Hello!" But the response to the book has been just fantastic, I imagine because it had a lot of details that people are not really aware of, like how hard that Patrick worked to get where he was.

Have any of your health habits changed in the last year?

I was always pretty good about it to begin with. I have regular mammograms. In the last few years, I started getting an annual physical. But I have yet to get around to the colonoscopy. Now that you mention it, maybe it's time to do that.

You and Patrick were married for more than three decades. Do you have any advice for a healthy marriage?

I've had friends who appear to be very unhappy in their relationship. But generally, the problem isn't the other person. It's a problem in yourself, and you need to address your own unhappiness or frustration or impatience. A lot of people focus on the 25% that's wrong in their relationship instead of celebrating the 75% that's right.

Who influenced you the most when it comes to your health?

My mom was a nurse. She's 85 now and retired, but she's one of those people who will say, "You need to go check that out." Of course, she's qualified and she's got a lot of common sense.

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