Sept. 16, 2009— -- Patrick Swayze passed away Monday at the age of 57, but his 20-month battle with pancreatic cancer showed how tough the disease is -- and how unusual it is for people to survive with it as long as he did.
When Swayze was diagnosed, he was given a few months to live.
"The median survival is probably five months," said Dr. Lucas Wong, co-director of the gastrointestinal cancer program at Scott & White Memorial Hospital & Clinic in Temple, Texas. Wong's assessment was confirmed by several other oncologists who work with pancreatic cancer patients.
Wong said that five months represents the median survival time, so half of all patients would be expected to live beyond that time. In Swayze's case, other factors would suggest he would outlive five months.
For one, Swayze really seemed to benefit from his regimen of chemotherapy, typically administered to pancreatic cancer patients in a drug called gemcitabine.
"There are people who do better than others, even those with advanced disease," said Dr. Suresh Chari, a gastroenterologist specializing in pancreatic cancer at the Mayo Clinic. "Almost all chemotherapy agents ... do benefit some subset of patients."
It may also have helped that Swayze, a dancer, stayed in shape his whole life, and remained active even after his diagnosis. He filmed a full season of the A&E series "The Beast," often working 12-hour work days.
"I encourage my patients to do whatever their body allows them to do," said Chari, although he said many patients feel fatigue from the cancer and are therefore unable to maintain an active lifestyle, even if they would like to.
But Swayze also smoked, and continued to smoke after his diagnosis. Smoking is just one factor that may have led to the cancer.
"Smoking is definitely a risk factor for pancreatic cancer," said Chari, noting that, by some estimates, up to a quarter of the 37,000 annual pancreatic cancer cases may be due to smoking.
Could he have fought the disease longer by quitting cigarettes? Not likely, say doctors.
"Once the cancer has spread and all this happened ... continuing smoking, I don't think, mattered at that point," said Chari.
Swayze was diagnosed initially with stage four pancreatic cancer -- the most severe form -- and the disease had already spread to his liver.