Patrick Swayze on Cancer: 'I'm Going Through Hell'

Exclusive: Patrick Swayze opens up to Barbara Walters about pancreatic cancer.

January 5, 2009, 4:19 PM

Jan. 6, 2009— -- Patrick Swayze has been "going through hell" in his yearlong battle with pancreatic cancer, but that hasn't stopped the actor from taking on a leading role in a new television series.

"I've never been one to run from a challenge," Swayze told Barbara Walters in his first interview since his cancer diagnosis last January.

Still, when 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."

"You can bet that I'm going through hell," Swayze said. "And I've only seen the beginning of it."

Walters first interviewed Swayze in 1988, at the height of the actor's "Dirty Dancing" fame. When they met again last month at his ranch in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles, Swayze talked openly about his cancer, his treatment, his thoughts and fears, and his prognosis.

"There's a lot of fear here," Swayze said. "There's a lot of stuff going on. Yeah, I'm scared. Yeah, I'm angry. Yeah, I'm [asking] why me. Yeah, I'm all this stuff."

The 56-year-old's battle with cancer began late in 2007. As he celebrated New Year's Eve with his wife, Lisa Niemi, Swayze felt that something was wrong.

"I tried to have champagne, and it would be like pouring acid, you know, on an open wound."

Soon he found "my indigestion issues got gigantic and constant. And then I started thinking, I'm getting skinny. I dropped about 20 pounds in the blink of an eye. And then when you see it in the mirror, when all of a sudden, you pull your eyes down and the bottom of your eyes go yellow and jaundice sets in -- then you know something's wrong."

Swayze realized that he needed medical attention. "I started doing a little research and started realizing this is not pretty. This is not a good thing."

Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosis a 'Nightmare' for Swayze

Doctors found that the actor had a malignant tumor in his midsection and a tiny mass on his liver. Pancreatic cancer is extremely difficult to diagnose, and only after a battery of procedures over several days were his doctors able to make a definitive diagnosis: Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. "For the first few weeks, it was like being in a nightmare you couldn't wake up from," recalled Niemi, 52.

Swayze wanted to keep the secret as long as possible while he and his wife decided how to proceed, but the news of his life-threatening illness broke early last year when tabloids reported he had only five weeks to live. Although the majority of patients with advanced stage pancreatic cancer die within six months of the diagnosis, Swayze told Walters his response to the diagnosis was, "Watch me! You watch what I pull off."

Dr. John Chabot, one of the country's leading pancreatic cancer researchers at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, calls pancreatic cancer the silent killer because there can be few, if any, symptoms.

"One of the most important problems is we tend to diagnose it late. Fifty percent of people, when they're diagnosed, the cancer has already spread to other organs, and there's almost no chance of cure with current treatments."

For Swayze, surgery to remove the cancer was not an option because it had spread to his liver. He embarked on an aggressive course of traditional chemotherapy along with the experimental drug Vatalanib.

Beating the odds, Swayze has lived with his cancer for a year and has stayed out of the spotlight, except when he appeared on the televised "Stand Up to Cancer" fundraiser last September. The crowd leapt to its feet when he walked onstage.

"I keep dreaming of a future, a future with a long and healthy life," Swayze said, "not lived in the shadow of cancer, but in the light."

Swayze Takes on 'The Beast'

Swayze has been a beloved actor for decades, with cultlike fans who claim to have watched his films hundreds of times. It has been 22 years since the sexy gyrating star of "Dirty Dancing" boogied into the hearts of a generation, and his Texas cowboy heritage came in handy for his role as a take no prisoners bouncer in a Midwest saloon in "Road House."

He was macho enough to play a man playing a woman in "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar," but it was his role in "Ghost," opposite Demi Moore, that sealed his destiny among the top romantic actors of all time.

Beginning last July, Swayze began a grueling five months in Chicago filming the new TV series called "The Beast," working 12 hours or more each day, mostly in cold, nighttime conditions.

"I think everybody thought I was out of my mind, you know, thinking I'm gonna pull off a TV show," said Swayze, who plays an FBI agent battling internal demons.

The work was exhausting, and he could not rest on the weekends because he was undergoing intensive chemotherapy. But Swayze never let on to co-star Travis Fimmel or anyone else on the set how tough things were.

"It is grueling," said Fimmel. "I feel, sometimes I'm real tired, but I got nothing to complain, you know. Patrick's there every day."

No matter how bad he felt, Swayze said he refused to take painkilling medicine. "When you're shooting, you can't do drugs," he told Walters. "I can't do Hydrocodone or Vicodin or these kinds of things that take the edge off of it, 'cause it takes the edge off of your brain."

In five months, Swayze missed 1½ days of work.

Through it all, Niemi was by his side, during the private hours of excruciating pain and on the set, always supporting his decision to continue the work he loves. She even directed him in an episode.

She said it was Swayze's decision to commit to the series, but "the moment he showed up in Chicago there was this enormous burst of energy that was stunning. And that kind of said, you know, maybe we are in the right place."

The couple met 36 years ago, when 16-year-old Niemi walked into his mother's dance studio in Houston and 20-year-old Swayze was smitten for life.

Married for 33 years, Swayze said of his wife, "I have no greater respect for any other human being on this earth like I have for her. 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."

I Can Keep Going

Swayze insists he doesn'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 has become an inspiration. He has received thousands of letters from around the world with advice and encouragement.

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

Swayze said the illness has 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 talks 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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