Swayze Plans to Act Through His Cancer

Experts say pancreatic cancer should not hinder Patrick Swayze's acting career.

January 8, 2009, 1:24 AM

June 10, 2008 — -- Nobody puts Patrick Swayze in a corner, and it seems that cancer won't either.

The star of such hit films as "Dirty Dancing" and "Ghost" is going forward with plans to begin working on a new cable television series later this year despite being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March.

Cancer experts applaud his decision to continue working, saying that nothing he could do, physically, will speed the pace of cancer and that working could even benefit him mentally.

"I don't think anything that he is doing is going to make things worse," said Dr. Andrew Warshaw, chief surgeon at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center in Boston. "It is very common to talk about fighting your cancer. ... But if you decide you are going to feel better, to some extent you can make that happen."

Swayze shot the pilot for "The Beast," a cop drama in which he plays a gritty FBI agent, before his diagnosis. After learning of his illness and undergoing a course of chemotherapy and some experimental drug treatments, Swayze and executives from A&E, the network on which the show is set to air, and Sony Pictures Television believed he could continue working and continued with production.

The decision is optimistic, considering the mortality rate for pancreatic cancer. The prognosis for the disease is typically poor, with patients often given only a few months to live. Even when they live longer, patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer have only a 5 percent chance of still being alive in five years, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Some patients get lucky, however. Warshaw estimated that about 20 percent of patients respond well to a treatment of chemotherapy and other drugs.

"There is a big difference between the degree of response" in patients, Warshaw said. "Was he in the lucky subgroup for living longer? Maybe."

And patients tend to tolerate treatments for pancreatic cancer, without them being too toxic or debilitating. For Swayze, that means continuing to work during his treatment is possible.

Dr. Harold Frucht of the Pancreatic Cancer Prevention & Genetics Program at Columbia University in New York said staying busy can help a patient combat the depression that people with pancreatic cancer sometimes face, and which can be more debilitating than the disease itself.

"That he is acting is a very good thing," Frucht said. "Whether he is depressed or not depressed, he is not letting it interfere with his lifestyle. It would be bad if he sat home and got depressed and had chemo."

The ideal course of action for pancreatic cancer is to get chemotherapy treatments and drug combinations to shrink the tumor down to a size that can be operated upon. Unfortunately, treatments for pancreatic cancer cannot be tailored to each individual as they can in other types of cancer.

"We act as if one size fits all where in fact one size doesn't fit all," Warshaw said, referring to how each pancreatic cancer patient is treated with the same combination of drugs. "The future lies in determining what characteristics or size is right for each person's individual tumor. What's plan B? What's the next course of action?"

Though both Sony and A&E executives have considered the possibility that they might have to recast the lead role or make Swayze's character less prominent, they reportedly said that a plan B was something they have not yet seriously considered.