No matter how bad he felt, Swayze said he refused to take painkilling medicine. "If it's about pain, I can deal with it. I, I can rage my way through it. When you're shooting, you can't do drugs," he told Walters. "I can't do Hydrocodone or Vicodin or these kinds of things that take the edge off it, 'cause it takes the edge off your brain."
In five months, Swayze missed 1½ days of work.
Through it all, Niemi was by his side, during the private hours of excruciating pain and on the set, always supporting his decision to continue the work he loves. She even directed him in an episode.
She said it was Swayze's decision to commit to the series, but "the moment he showed up in Chicago there was this enormous burst of energy that was stunning. And that kind of said, you know, maybe we are in the right place."
The couple met 36 years ago, when 16-year-old Niemi walked into his mother's dance studio in Houston, and the 20-year-old Swayze became smitten for life.
Married for 33 years, Swayze said of his wife, "I have no greater respect for any other human being on this earth like I have for her. Part of me says I couldn't have made it through without her, but, of course, the other part of me says I could have, but not nearly as elegantly as I have."
Niemi told Walters her one regret is that the couple never had children. "If you ask, well, why or why not, I don't know, just life happened," she said. "But how can I complain, because I certainly have enormous riches in my life."
Still, Niemi has struggled to cope with her husband's illness.
"I've got a lot of strength, but as a friend once said, you're really strong, but you're weak when it comes to him. It's the first time in my life I said, 'I can't do this, I can't do it.' And somehow, you find a way of coming to terms with it. One of the best ways of getting through that is to open your eyes and appreciate what you do have."
Niemi has yet to face the prospect of life without her husband. "I can't help but wonder how I'd be able to do that. And I think that, you know, I'm just gonna figure that out when I get there."
Swayze insists he doesn't want to be the poster boy for living with cancer, but like it or not, his stubborn refusal to let cancer alter his life has become an inspiration. He has received thousands of letters from around the world offering advice and encouragement.
"The outpouring of love has, has constantly astounded me," Swayze said.
Swayze said the illness has made him think more about the afterlife.
"I don't know what's on the other side," he said. "It tests everything I believe in … that here is something unique in all of us that does not, does not die."
Swayze said he talks to his father, who died before the actor became famous.
"I like to believe that I've got a lot of guardian warriors sitting on my shoulder, including my dad, saying, 'You just let Swayze dog know it's been his turn all this time. You just let us do the work and we'll finish it for him.' And so, I'm trying to shut up and let my angels speak to me and, and tell me what I'm supposed to do."
"What winning is to me is not giving up, is no matter what's thrown at me, I can take it," Swayze said. "And I can keep going."
For more information about pancreatic cancer, visit:
The Pancreas Center at Columbia University Medical Center
The National Cancer Institute's Pancreas Site