Swayze: Outlived Most With Pancreatic Cancer

"We've never used it, but I've certainly had patients bring it up," said Dr. David Cosgrove, a medical oncologist at Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center. "I never want to close the door on an alternative strategy, but I try to counsel my patients on what that strategy involved and the standard risks."

Instead, Cosgrove said, he steers his patients toward clinical drug trials.

"We certainly would bring up clinical trials early in the conversation," he said.

So far, however, those have not led to new treatments.

"There's not really a standard second-line therapy," said Cosgrove.

Pancreatic Cancer Is One of the Hardest to Treat

"I call it 'the monster' because it's a monster disease," said Maryjane Barbaris, who lost her husband, Harry, to pancreatic cancer in February 2007. "It's something that's very difficult to fight, and difficult to win."

Swayze is one of several famous people who have contracted the disease in recent years, including Apple CEO Steve Jobs, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late "Last Lecture" professor Randy Pausch.

"Unfortunately, when someone famous gets it, you get more publicity from it," said Barbaris.

Kerri Kaplan, executive director of the Lustgarten Foundation, a nonprofit group that funds pancreatic cancer research, said Swayze's death is also something that brings more resolve.

"When something tragic like this happens, it makes us feel like we need to continue the fight," she said.

Barbaris said her husband -- himself a surgeon -- also resisted alternative treatments.

"He was not open to that," she said. "As a physician and a surgeon, they're usually not open to that type of stuff. I was willing to try anything, and I could only support [him] in what he said is right."

A Brighter Future for A Dark Diagnosis?

Doctors are hopeful that coming years will bring both better diagnostic tools to detect pancreatic cancer, as well as better drugs to combat it.

"Progress is slow; we just wish it was more," said Wong. "We haven't gotten to the point where we can give really positive news; we're just in the developing stages. Some of the drugs that we use for other cancer have not been effective with pancreatic cancer."

Researchers have trouble enrolling patients for clinical trials of treatments of pancreatic cancer. Chari said that in up to half of all cases, patients don't have the opportunity to enroll, because the prognosis from the first physician they see is so grim.

"They are not referred to various centers for enrolling in clinical trials. A large number of patients never make it to these centers," said Chari. "The only way we're going to make progress is to enroll them in these centers.

"It's very important that patients are encouraged to enroll in these studies," he said. "They're not going to be deprived of standard treatment, but they may get something extra."

Patients in new drug trials are given the experimental drug in addition to whatever the standard therapy is.

For her part, Barbaris said she has designated over $100,000 of money she has raised toward biomarkers -- early detection.

"The problem with this disease is it's picked up too late," she said. "Perhaps my husband would still be alive if it was picked up way, way before."

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Additional Resources:

Lustgarten Foundation

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