Pancreatic Cancer: What You Should Know

Pancreatic Cancer: What You Should Know
Patrick Swayze at the Stand Up to Cancer telethon in September 2008

09/17/2009 AT 02:30 PM EDT

"Ever since I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January 2008," Patrick Swayze wrote in a February op-ed in The Washington Post, "I've been waging an intense, often hellacious battle."

In fact, Swayze, who died on Monday, battled the notoriously aggressive cancer longer than most patients diagnosed with the disease.

Because it often goes undetected until an advanced stage – symptoms may include abdominal or back pain, weight loss, nausea and jaundice – pancreatic is one of the deadliest of cancers, killing 75 percent of patients within a year of diagnosis. Swayze, who was 57 at the time of his death, had been battling the disease for two years.

While few risk factors have been identified as precursors for pancreatic cancer, smoking "may be responsible for 10 to 15 percent" of cases, Dr. George Fisher, Swayze's oncologist at Stanford University Medical Center, told PEOPLE in March 2008.

Treatments for the disease – which also claimed the lives of bestselling author (The Last Lecture) Randy Pausch, superstar tenor Luciano Pavarotti, and actors Michael Landon, Donna Reed and Joan Crawford, among others – may include chemotherapy, radiation and experimental drugs.

Few of them, however, are successful in slowing the cancer's progression.

"The good news," Swayze wrote last February, "is that we have seen progress against a number of cancers in recent years. The bad news is that for many other kinds, including the type of tumor that has invaded my pancreas, and liver, the results are not very good at all.

"When I was growing up in Texas, my family had a simple response for challenges like this: 'Stop talking about it, and do something about it,' " Swayze continued. "That's how I feel about finding more money for cancer research. My hope is that someday, the words 'a cure' won't be followed by the words 'is impossible.' "

Two major national organizations – the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network and the Lustgarten Foundation – are fighting pancreatic cancer through private fundraising and advocacy for better government support. Earlier this year, the first legislation dedicated to improving pancreatic cancer research funding was introduced in the House of Representatives.

To find out how you can help the fight, go to or

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