Actor Patrick Swayze Dies of Pancreatic Cancer

"Dirty Dancing" star fought the disease for 20 months, said he wouldn't quit.

May 20, 2009, 11:24 AM

Sept. 14, 2009— -- Actor Patrick Swayze died today after a 20-month battle with pancreatic cancer, his publicist confirmed to ABC News. He was 57.

"Patrick Swayze passed away peacefully today with family at his side after facing the challenges of his illness for the last 20 months," his publicist, Annett Wolf, said in a statement released Monday evening.

Watch the Barbara Walters Special "Patrick Swayze: Last Dance" Tuesday at 10 pm ET.

Patrick Swayze's wife Lisa Niemi told ABC News' Barbara Walters that she and his brother Donny Swayze were by his side when he died at his ranch on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

Swayze, best known for starring in the blockbuster films "Dirty Dancing" and "Ghost," was diagnosed with cancer in January 2008, but outlived the prognosis of just several months he received.

His "Dirty Dancing" co-star, Jennifer Grey, said Swayze "was a rare and beautiful combination of raw masculinity and amazing grace."

"Gorgeous and strong, he was a real cowboy with a tender heart," she said after learning of his death. "He was fearless and insisted on always doing his own stunts, so it was not surprising to me that the war he waged on his cancer was so courageous and dignified.

"When I think of him, I think of being in his arms when we were kids, dancing, practicing the lift in the freezing lake, having a blast doing this tiny little movie we thought no one would ever see," she said.

His last television interview was in December 2008 with ABC News' Barbara Walters.

Swayze spoke candidly to Walters about his prognosis and vowed to fight his cancer and "keep my heart and my soul and my spirit open to miracles."

"One thing I'm not gonna do is chase staying alive," Swayze said. "You spend so much time chasing staying alive, you won't live."

"He fought the bravest battle and sadly lost," Walters said today. "My heart goes out to his wonderful Lisa, his wife and soulmate for 34 years."

Lisa Niemi said that he had just recently completed the audio version of his memoir entitled "The Time of My Life," in homage to the song he made famous in "Dirty Dancing." The book is scheduled to be released Sept. 29.

From the time he could walk, Swayze, whose mother was a dance instructor and choreographer, took dance lessons in his hometown of Houston.

Swayze's father, on the other hand, was a great outdoorsman, which is where Swayze got his love for horses.

His primary passion growing up was dancing, but eventually Swayze was forced to stop because of injuries and began investing his energy into acting.

He moved to New York and had his first big break in the Broadway musical "Grease" in 1978. His popularity on the Great White Way soon led him to Hollywood, where he appeared in a teenage movie called "Skatetown USA."

Although he was compared to Rudolph Valentino and John Travolta, Swayze decided not to go the route of being a teenage idol. Instead, he chose to pursue films such as "The Outsiders" and the television miniseries "North and South."

Swayze achieved true stardom with the biggest break of his life, starring as the gyrating dance instructor Johnny Castle in 1987's "Dirty Dancing" opposite co-star Jennifer Gray. He earned a Golden Globe nomination for his role, along with a cult-like following of fans.

He received another nomination for his 1990 blockbuster "Ghost," in which he starred alongside Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg. He was named by People magazine as the "Sexiest Man Alive" in 1991.

Moore released this statement upon hearing of Swayze's death, "Patrick you are loved by so many and your light will forever shine in all of our lives. In the words of Sam to Molly. 'It's amazing Molly. The love inside, you take it with you.' I will miss you. Demi."

Swayze continued acting in films, including "Point Break," "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar" and "Donnie Darko."

Patrick Swayze's Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosis

Swayze told Walters he started to notice something was wrong on New Year's Eve Dec. 31, 2007, when he couldn't even drink a glass of champagne. He soon realized that his indigestion issues were constant, that he was suffering from jaundice and rapidly losing weight.

After undergoing a battery of tests and procedures, doctors discovered Swayze had stage 4 pancreatic cancer -- the most serious level of the disease. Removal by surgery was not an option.

Pancreatic cancer often is called a "silent killer" because symptoms may not appear until the cancer has already reached an advanced stage.

Although the majority of patients with advanced stage pancreatic cancer die within six months of the diagnosis, Swayze reacted with defiance.

"I have the meanness and the passion to say, 'To hell with you. Watch me! You watch what I pull off.'"

Before Swayze could absorb or live with the diagnosis, news of his illness leaked to the public and there were reports that he only had five weeks to live. Swayze was forced to release a statement announcing that he was battling cancer.

Throughout his illness, tabloid newspapers continued to report that he was on his last legs and planning his goodbyes.

Swayze said he was able to ignore the tabloids in the past but began to feel differently "when they start screwing with people I love, when they start screwing with my family.

"Hope is a very, very fragile thing in anyone's life," he said, "and the people I love do not need to have that hope robbed from them, when it's unjustified and it's untrue."

Asked if he was scared, Swayze told Walters, "I don't know. I will be so either truthful or stupid as to say no. But then I immediately, when I say that, I have to say yes, I am."

With Wife's Support, Swayze Waged Cancer Battle

Even after his diagnosis, Swayze continued to work. In late 2008, he shot an entire season of the A&E television series called "The Beast." Playing an aging FBI agent training a new partner, Swayze called it some of the best work of his career. The show was shot in Chicago, where he would often work 12 hour days and have chemotherapy treatments on his days off.

"Nobody on the set ever saw me whine, moan like a girly-loser-man," Swayze said. "I would do an attitude adjustment every morning. I think everybody thought I was out of my mind, thinking I'm gonna pull off a TV show, but I've never been one to run from a challenge."

"I've always known that Patrick is a really tough guy, but until all this illness came up in this past year, I had no idea really, the depths of his toughness and, and the amount of fight in him," said Lisa Niemi, Swayze's wife of 34 years.

The couple met 37 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.

"I have no greater respect for any other human being on Earth like I have for her," Swayze said. "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."

Swayze said he and Niemi, 53, still found time to dance together and in summer 2008, on the spur of the moment, they renewed their wedding vows.

"We did it very Prince Charming and Snow White. I rode in on a snorting steed, [a] white stallion" Swayze recalled.

"It was like a fairy tale," Niemi said. "One of the happiest days ever."

A smoker for decades, Swayze continued smoking after his cancer was discovered, even though he knew it may have been partially to blame.

"I've been dealing with one thing as it comes at a time, in the order that it's trying to kill me," he said. "Will stopping smoking now stop anything, change anything? No. But, when it looks like I may live longer than five minutes, I'll drop cigarettes like a hot potato. Right now, it's not my priority."

Swayze on 'Outpouring of Love'

Swayze insisted he didn'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 became an inspiration. He received thousands of letters from around the world offering advice and encouragement.

"The outpouring of love has, has constantly astounded me," Swayze said.

Swayze also said the illness 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 talked 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."

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