Lisa Niemi: Healing From the Loss of Patrick Swayze

The dancer, writer, and horse woman channels her grief into advocating for pancreatic cancer research.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on October 07, 2010

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.

You used to smoke. How did you quit?

My lung capacity was severely diminished and it scared me enough to quit. I quit the hard way: I just put the cigarettes down. I visualized nicotine as a big monster. Within a year my lung capacity improved by 60%.

What are your best and worst health habits?

My best health habit is that I've been doing yoga three times a week. I'm buffed in my upper body like I probably never have been. My worst is that I sometimes grab whatever food is nearby. It's like, "Wait a second, there's a bag of Doritos in there."

Did yoga help you after Patrick passed away?

I started back into it only a few months after losing Patrick, and it could be hard. You usually do a little meditation at the beginning and at the end of the class. I was glad that everyone's eyes were closed because I'd have tears running down my face. At one point I said, "I'm going to give this class one more try, and if I cry, I'm going to take a break until I'm OK." Then, I didn't cry during class. So I thought, "OK, this is a sign to keep coming."

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

My whole life is in flux right now. I'm staying very open about where life might want to take me. There are a lot of things I really enjoy doing, and I'm going to see if that continues to be the case -- it may shift. In 10 years I hope that whatever path I end up on is one that gives me bliss.

What are the other benefits of yoga for you?

Once I saw another woman in the dressing room out of the corner of my eye. I thought, "Oh my God, this woman looks like me when I was 18." When we got to class, I got a look at her face, and she wasn't 18 years old. She was in her late 50s or early 60s, but her body ... that's the true test right there. You look at these woman who are older and who have a really good yoga practice -- they're healthy and strong, and their bodies look young.

What do you do to unwind after a tough day?

I try to find relaxation in the things that I do. I'm working with some horses this summer, and I'm trying to get some miles on them. In the morning, I'll think, "I've got two hours to work the horses and do this and that." Then I get on the horse and the whole time I'm working the horse I've got a big smile on my face. I find those moments in all the things that I do.

How is your health now?

I think it's OK. I'm actually due to get a checkup. In the grief process, there are a lot of times where your body just doesn't feel like your own. You feel stuff in your body and you think, "It could be something, it could be nothing."

The story about your brother's neighbor is funny. It's interesting that people would read Time of My Life not already knowing who Patrick is.

It's interesting because generally people's experience of him is in roles or in interviews. I get asked how I feel about seeing him on the screen now, but I don't have that much of a problem with it because every time I see him come up like that, it's a character. He's playing a role and it's not the Patrick that I know.

Which was your favorite of Patrick's movies?

It's hard to pick a favorite. Ghost, of course, is a fantastic movie. I've always liked Dirty Dancing; I think it's still around for a reason. I love it when he falls out of the back of the airplane in Point Break. I love Red Dawn because that whole area is where our ranch is. I like City of Joy for the opportunity to be in India and have your eyes opened in a way that you never imagined they could be and in a wonderful, human way.

What's your philosophy on what makes strong relationships?

There are always going to be bumps along the way, but you have to remember that that's the beauty of life. We're complicated creatures and we're doing the best we can, and part of that is making mistakes and failing occasionally. And if you have the resilience to bounce back together, stronger, that's a really beautiful thing.