'Killing Fields' Photographer Squares Off Against Cancer

Khmer Rouge survivor speaks about fight against "sneaky" disease.

ByABC News
January 8, 2009, 12:10 AM

March 11, 2008 — -- Legendary New York Times photojournalist Dith Pran, on whose story the award-winning movie The Killing Fields was based, survived the horrors of war and starvation in a labor camp in the time of the Khmer Rouge.

Now, the Cambodian national faces a different battle -- a fight against pancreatic cancer. And in most cases, it is an unwinnable fight.

Dith is the second celebrity with Hollywood connections in as many weeks who has been identified as a sufferer of the disease. And as the world watches Dith and actor Patrick Swayze fight the ravages of an illness that kills 95 percent of patients within five years, many may fear that they, too, could be at risk of this silent killer.

A short video posted Sunday evening on the site Jumpcut.com shows Dith discussing his illness with visitors to his hospital room.

"Some people say it is a killer disease," Dith says in the video. "I call it a sneaky disease, because it infiltrates into the bottom of your body so that nobody knows ahead of time."

In the video, Dith appears comfortable and alert. Diane McNulty, spokesperson for the New York Times, said Dith's colleagues have visited him at the hospital and "found him full of determination to beat the cancer, grateful for visits, cards, letters, e-mails and prayers, though not equally able at all times to receive them.

"Everyone who knows Pran at The Times knows that this is an extraordinary person, a survivor," McNulty said. "He survived the killing fields, and we hope he will survive this illness."

Dith was transferred to the Roosevelt Care Center in Edison, N.J. on Friday, and he is also having radiation treatments at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital. Dith has reportedly been battling the disease since his diagnosis in January.

McNulty said his disease is now in stage 4 -- the most severe form of the cancer for which there is no reliable curative treatment.

Actor Swayze's pancreatic cancer was revealed last Wednesday, when publicists released a statement following reports in the National Enquirer and other publications which said doctors had told the "Dirty Dancing" star he had only five weeks left to live.

"Patrick has a very limited amount of disease and he appears to be responding well to treatment thus far," George Fisher, Swayze's physician, said in the statement. "All of the reports stating the time frame of his prognosis and his physical side effects are absolutely untrue. We are considerably more optimistic."

But even though the five-week time frame trumpeted by tabloids may be false, cancer specialists say that pancreatic cancer more often than not comes with a daunting prognosis.

According to statistics from the National Cancer Institute, patients diagnosed with the disease have only a one-in-20 shot of being alive five years after the cancer is found. And the patient advocacy group Pancreatic Cancer Action Network pegs the average life expectancy for a patient diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that has spread at three to six months.

Part of the reason that this cancer is so deadly is that there is no reliable screening test for the disease. Adding to the problem is the fact that the symptoms that indicate the presence of the illness are easy to miss or misclassify -- abdominal pains, loss of appetite, weight loss and possible jaundice.

And once symptoms appear, it is often too late.

"Sixty [percent] to 70 percent of pancreatic cancers are diagnosed in the most advanced stage -- when it has spread to other organs -- and we have, at best, minimally effective therapies for advanced pancreatic cancer," said William Blackstock, professor of radiation oncology at the Wake Forest University Comprehensive Cancer Center in Winston-Salem, N.C.