Published September 15, 2009
After a very long, public battle with pancreatic cancer, actor Patrick Swayze died at home Monday with his family and friends at his side. He was 57.
Swayze, who was diagnosed in January 2008, defied the odds in many ways – living for more than a year-and-a-half with this extremely deadly form of cancer. During that time, he put together a memoir with his wife and even started filming the new crime drama “The Beast,” in which he refused to take painkillers because he was worried it would affect his performance.
“If you were to look at statistics — the prognosis that is given to most patients with metastatic cancer is usually three to six months,” Dr. Jeffrey Hardacre, assistant professor of surgery at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and attending surgeon at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio, told FOXNews.com.
“It certainly has been described for people to live longer than a year — but this is outside of the norm. Most people with metastatic pancreatic cancer will not live longer than a year,” he said.
Most pancreatic cancer cases are asymptomatic, meaning patients rarely exhibit symptoms of an illness until it's too late to stop its spread.
“There are a couple of things about pancreatic cancer and one of them is that about 50 percent of patients will already be at the metastatic stage of the disease when they show the first symptoms,” Hardacre said. “And that means it has spread to other organs.”
If that’s the case, there are several courses of treatment that can help control symptoms -- but that’s about as far as it goes.
“Most patients with this cancer would receive chemotherapy either alone or with a combo of medications as a first line treatment,” Hardacre said. “But the effectiveness as far as prolonging survival is not that dramatic — but the treatment does help improve symptoms such as pain, fatigue, weight loss.”
The average age of patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is mid-to-late 60s, Hardacre said, with a vast majority of cases being sporadic. He said it’s basically “bad luck.”
But there are risk factors, he said, including smoking, heavy drinking, and in some cases a genetic predisposition for the disease. Some sufferers of chronic pancreatitis may also be at risk.
Besides eating right and abstaining from smoking and heavy drinking, there's very little that can be done to prevent the disease.
Caught in its advanced stages, pancreatic cancer, which affects about 30,000 people a year, has a 5 percent survival rate for five years. Caught early enough and treated with surgery and chemotherapy, the five-year survival rate goes up to 17 to 25 percent.
“Approximately 20 percent of patients have cancer confined to [the] pancreas that is able to be removed surgically,” Hardacre said. “And it is those patients who have the best outlook and the only real hope for long-term survival or a cure.”
Instead of looking at it as “death sentence,” Hardacre said it’s important for patients to keep a positive attitude.
“No doubt that it is a bad disease to have — but you’ve got to look at this like the glass is half full and not half empty.”
And it seems Swayze did just that — living life to the fullest right until the very end.