Nov. 3, 2009— -- In a memoir Patrick Swayze and his wife, Lisa Niemi, chronicled the personal and professional challenges they faced and the lessons they learned after Swayze was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer.
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In late December 2007, life was looking pretty good. I had just wrapped shooting on the pilot of a new TV series, The Beast. My wife, Lisa, and I were enjoying a second honeymoon of sorts after a long, difficult period in which we had grown painfully apart. And I was feeling excited about new work, new directions, and the promise of the future.
Lisa and I were planning to spend New Year's Eve at our ranch in New Mexico, as we'd done for the past few years. But first, we stopped off in Aspen to visit a couple of friends. It was there that I got the first hint that something was wrong.
I had been having some digestive trouble, mostly acid reflux and a kind of bloated feeling, for a few weeks. I've had a sensitive stomach my whole life, so I hadn't thought much of it, but lately I just couldn't shake the constant discomfort. I wasn't hungry and felt sick whenever I did eat, but I'd always been pretty healthy, so I figured the feeling would pass eventually.
In Aspen, we all raised glasses of champagne for a toast. I took a sip, and as the champagne began to course through my esophagus to my stomach, I nearly choked -- it burned like acid going down. It felt like I'd drunk lye, a sharp, searing pain that brought tears to my eyes. I'd never felt anything like it, but not wanting to ruin the festivities, I said nothing to Lisa. I was used to ignoring pain, so I just didn't drink any more champagne that night, and didn't think anything more about it.
Three weeks later, in January 2008, I learned that the burning in my stomach wasn't some minor irritation. It was the result of blockage in my bile ducts, which was caused by pancreatic cancer -- just about the most deadly, untreatable cancer you can get.
When my doctor at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles said the words "pancreatic cancer," a single thought popped into my mind: I'm a dead man. That's what I had always thought when I heard someone had pancreatic cancer, and it usually turned out to be true. My doctor told me that my chances of surviving for more than a few months weren't high, and I had no reason to doubt him.
A lot of things go through your head when you get a death sentence handed to you, starting with Why me? What did I do to deserve this? Once the shock wears off, it's hard not to sink into bitterness, to feel that you've been singled out in a way that's not fair. For me, that initial shock quickly turned to self-criticism and blame. Did I do this to myself? What could I have done differently? Is it my fault?