Pancreatic Cancer Steals a Star

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Patrick Swayze, the actor who shot to fame for his role in the 1987 film "Dirty Dancing", died in Los Angeles Monday after fighting pancreatic cancer for more than a year. He was 57.

His diagnosis came early last year, shortly after production ended on the pilot episode of "The Beast," an A&E series in which Swayze played an FBI agent.

Despite his illness, Swayze was able to persuade A&E to continue work on the series, which was shot in Chicago while he received chemotherapy and took an experimental drug that targets tumors.

Swayze had a more controlled form of pancreatic cancer, an aggressive disease that killed a little more than 34,000 Americans last year. About 40,000 Americans are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer every year.

The outlook for patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is poor, with a less than five percent survival rate five years from diagnosis. It rarely goes into remission after treatment. There are about eight main types of pancreatic cancer, with 95 percent of all cases being adenosquamous carcinomas.

A gland about 6 inches long that lies between the stomach and the spine, the pancreas produces enzymes and hormones that help digest food and control blood sugar levels, which help the body use and store the energy it gets from food.

Pancreatic cancer is often referred to as the "silent killer", because many patients experience few if any symptoms until the cancer is advanced. There is currently no method for screening for pancreatic cancer. Because of its location inside the body, the pancreas is a difficult organ to examine.

Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include the following:

  • Smoking.
  • Long-standing diabetes.
  • Chronic pancreatitis. (inflammation of the pancreas)
  • Certain hereditary conditions, such as hereditary pancreatitis, multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 syndrome, hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC; Lynch syndrome), von Hippel-Lindau syndrome, ataxia-telangiectasia, and the familial atypical multiple mole melanoma syndrome (FAMMM).

Possible signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer include jaundice, pain in the upper abdomen that radiates to the back, weight loss, loss of appetite and fatigue.

Pancreatic cancer can be controlled only if it is found before it has spread, when it can be removed by surgery. If the cancer has spread, palliative treatment can improve the patient's quality of life by controlling the symptoms and complications.

Content from Healthwise contributed to this article.