Sept. 15, 2009 -- Actor Patrick Swayze died yesterday of pancreatic cancer.
Swayze, 57, died "peacefully" with his family at his side, Swayze's publicist, Annett Wolf, said in a statement published by the Associated Press.
Although Swayze's memorable movie roles in Dirty Dancing and Ghost ingratiated him into the hearts and minds of legions of fans, he will also be remembered for the awareness he helped raise about pancreatic cancer -- a rare, but stealthy disease.
Swayze was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March 2008. He is survived by his wife, actress/dancer Lisa Niemi.
"Patrick Swayze is a tremendous source of inspiration," 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., previously told WebMD.
"He continued to work despite being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer,” Singh said. “We don’t want people to close the door when they are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.”
Patrick Swayze's Pancreatic Cancer
Although Swayze's pancreatic cancer was at stage IV when it was diagnosed in March 2008, he continued working on his television series, The Beast, completing all 13 episodes without the help of pain medications.
He opened up about his ordeal in a moving interview with Barbara Walters that aired in January. "You can bet that I'm going through hell," Swayze said. "And I've only seen the beginning of it."
Two days after that interview aired, Swayze checked himself into a hospital with pneumonia, where he recovered before going home.
What is Pancreatic Cancer?
The American Cancer Society estimates that in the U.S. in 2009, there will be 42,470 people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and 35,420 deaths from pancreatic cancer, making it the nation's fourth leading cause of cancer death overall.
Unlike other cancers, there is no screening test for pancreatic cancer. There are also no symptoms until the cancer has begun to spread, which accounts for the cancer's dismal survival rate.
Swayze's cancer had already spread to his liver when it was found. Because of that, he did not have surgery.
Swayze's pancreatic cancer treatment included aggressive chemotherapy and an experimental drug called vatalanib. That drug, which is an angiogenesis inhibitor, blocks the development of new blood vessels that supply blood to the tumor, which may curb the cancer's growth and/or stop the cancer from spreading.
Dancing with the Stars
Born August 18, 1952 in Houston, Texas, Swayze graduated from Waltrip High School in Houston, and attended San Jacinto College. His father, Jesse Wayne Swayze, died in 1982.
His mother, Patsy, owned a dance school in Houston, where Patrick was also a student and perhaps began developing the moves he nailed in Dirty Dancing with actress Jennifer Grey. Swayze first danced professionally as Prince Charming in Disney on Parade. He also played lead Danny Zuko in the original Broadway production of Grease.
Highlights of his film career include a Golden Globe nomination for his role as dance instructor Johnny Castle in Dirty Dancing and a second nod for his portrayal of the ghost Sam Wheat in Ghost.
Several months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Swayze was cleared by his doctors to resume his work on his television show, The Beast.
Swayze also made an unscheduled appearance at Stand Up 2 Cancer, a televised event that was broadcast on network channels ABC, NBC, and CBS on Sept. 5, 2008. Stand Up 2 Cancer aims to take the sting out of cancer by promoting -- and investing -- in research.
"Tonight I stand here, another individual living with cancer, who asks that we not wait any longer and I ask only one thing of you -- please stand up with me," Swayze said to the cheering crowd.
Patrick Swayze: Cancer Pioneer
Part of Swayze’s lasting legacy may be his role in casting attention to experimental treatments for pancreatic cancer.
"It absolutely raises the profile of the disease to have someone well known and well-loved like Patrick Swayze have this be a public diagnosis," Michelle Duff, director of research and scientific affairs at the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PANCAN) in El Segundo, Calif., told WebMD previously. "Having his name in People magazine and other celebrity magazines certainly raises awareness for pancreatic cancer."
In fact, there was a pronounced spike in calls to PANCAN’s patient liaison program after Swayze's diagnosis became public, Duff said. The patient liaison program is a call-in program for patients and families that provides free information about the cancer.
Singh said there are some promising treatments in various stages of clinical trials. Researchers are also looking for genetic markers for early detection. In the future, blood tests may tell if someone tests positive for certain genes that portend risk of pancreatic cancer.
“No single therapy is absolute at the present time," Singh said. "It's analogous to multiple freeways. If you block off the main freeway, the cancer will find an alternative freeway and if you block off the alternative freeway, the cancer will find a surface route,” he says.
Put another way: "We can knock out several genes, but cancer cells are so smart that they will find a way of bypassing that route,” Singh said.
For these reasons, Singh predicts that various therapies that attack several routes will be the way to treat any cancer, including pancreatic cancer.
"Treatment vaccines look fairly promising for a good number of patients who have had the pancreatic tumor removed and then get a vaccine to prevent the disease from coming back," Duff says. "These vaccines basically stimulate the body's own immune system to fight the cancer and are typically given with chemotherapy."
There are several new chemotherapy agents in the pipeline in both academic settings and at pharmaceutical companies, Duff says.
"Some things are getting closer to prime time, but nothing is quite ready for prime time," she said.
Duff said she hopes that in 20 years, "we will think of pancreatic cancer as a chronic disease that we could detect earlier. This way, people will have years and years to live, much like what we have done in treating AIDS and other cancers... The ideal would be to find a cure. That would be an out-of-the-ballpark homerun."
WebMD Senior Writer Miranda Hitti contributed to this story.