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Patrick Swayze Has Pancreatic Cancer

An Expert Explains the Risk Factors and Treatments for Pancreatic Cancer
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

March 6, 2008 -- Patrick Swayze, who starred in such blockbuster films as Dirty Dancing and Ghost, has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, according to media reports. While little has been reported about the 55-year-old actor's condition, the news casts a spotlight on this often fatal form of cancer.

The pancreas is a long, flat gland that lies in the abdomen behind the stomach and produces both enzymes that aid digestion and certain hormones that help maintain the proper level of sugar in the blood.

The American Cancer Society estimates that 37,680 Americans (18,770 men and 18,910 women) will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2008. About 34,290 Americans (17,500 men and 16,790 women) will die of pancreatic cancer in 2008, making it the fourth deadliest cancer.

In a statement published in People magazine, Swayze's doctor, George Fisher, MD, an oncologist at Stanford Cancer Center in Palo Alto, Calif., said, "Patrick has a very limited amount of disease and he appears to be responding well to treatment thus far. All of the reports stating the time frame of his prognosis and his physical side effects are absolutely untrue. We are considerably more optimistic."

Swayze's diagnosis was initially reported by the National Enquirer and New York Post, which both suggested that the cancer is more severe.

To find out more about this form of cancer, WebMD spoke to Gagandeep Singh, MD, director of hepatobiliary and pancreatic surgery at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., and a spokesman for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCan), based in El Segundo, Calif.

Is Patrick Swayze a poster child for this disease in any way?

"No. It is almost equal in its incidence in men and women, so sex is not a factor. It occurs most often in patients about the age of 60 through 65, so at age 55, Patrick Swayze is young. The youngest patient I have ever treated was 21 and the oldest was 86, so there is a spectrum."

Why is this form of cancer so often considered a death sentence?

"There are usually no symptoms until the cancer has started to spread. It is relatively silent. Patients only get pain after it has spread and starts involving the nerves. In addition, there is no routine screening test for pancreatic cancer. By the time it's found in about 50% of cases, the cancer has already spread to other organs."

Why are there usually no symptoms?

"The pancreas is really deep set near the spine, so there is nothing for it to obstruct or press on to cause pain or other symptoms. If the tumor is in the head of the pancreas, it may cause jaundice, so these tumors are easier to find early. In these cases, the jaundice is characterized by dark urine and yellow eyes. The skin may also have an orangeish hue."

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