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Patrick Swayze Opens Up About Pancreatic Cancer

Actor Says He's 'Going Through Hell,' Took Experimental Medication
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Jan. 7, 2009 -- Patrick Swayze has tried an experimental drug as part of his pancreatic cancer treatment, and he says he's not giving up despite grim odds.

Swayze, who starred in the films Dirty Dancing and Ghost and is filming a new TV show called The Beast, talks about his pancreatic cancer in an exclusive interview with ABC. Swayze tells Barbara Walters that he has stage IV pancreatic cancer that had already spread to his liver when it was diagnosed in March 2008.

"I'm going through hell, and I've only seen the beginning of it," Swayze says in interview excerpts posted by ABC.

Swayze, 56, also says that surviving five years is "wishful thinking," but that living two more years "seems likely, if you're going to believe the statistics." And he defines "winning" as "not giving up."

Swayze didn't have surgery for his pancreatic cancer because the cancer had already spread when it was diagnosed. His treatment included aggressive chemotherapy and an experimental drug called vatalanib.

Here are answers to questions about Swayze's pancreatic cancer.

What is stage IV pancreatic cancer?

In stage IV pancreatic cancer, the cancer has already spread beyond the pancreas, explains Gagandeep Singh, MD, FACS, director of the Liver and Pancreas Center at the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, Calif.

Singh is not treating Swayze.

What is the typical prognosis for stage 4 pancreatic cancer?

"Five-year survival is almost unheard of," Singh says. "But the flip side is that there are two to three percent [of patients] who do make five years.

"Each person should not treat themselves as a number -- that I have a 97% chance of dying from this disease because it's disseminated. Maybe I'm in the 2% or 3% that is going to survive five years," he says.

Singh notes that those five-year survival rates are based on data that dates back 20-30 years, and since then, new drugs have debuted.

"Now, the buzzword is targeted therapy," Singh says. He explains that in targeted therapy, drugs target a certain receptor or protein that is particularly abundant, or overexpressed, in a tumor.

Besides chemotherapy, Swayze took an experimental drug called vatalanib. What does that drug do?

Vatalanib inhibits tyrosine kinases, which are enzymes needed for cell growth, cell proliferation, and cell differentiation.

"What inhibition of this does is you're stunting the growth of the tumor," Singh says. "You're preventing it from getting more aggressive, with the hope that it ultimately dies and goes away."

He points out that vatalanib is still being tested and isn't available yet.

What else is in the pipeline for treatment?

"There are probably at least 100 to 150 new drugs that are in the pipeline," says Singh, adding that most experimental drugs are used with chemotherapy when other treatments fail.

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