Patrick Swayze's widow calls for greater focus on pancreatic cancer

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 16, 2011 

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Lisa Niemi Swayze, wife of the late actor Patrick Swayze

OLIVIER DOULIERY — Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT

WASHINGTON — The wife of the late actor Patrick Swayze brought star power to a Capitol Hill news conference Wednesday to urge greater attention and federal resources to study pancreatic cancer, the disease that killed her husband in 2009.

Lisa Niemi Swayze, an actor, director and dancer, said that when the "Dirty Dancing" star was diagnosed, he said to her, "I'm a dead man."

Pancreatic cancer is the nation's fourth leading cause of cancer deaths, with only a 6 percent survival rate five years after being diagnosed. But it lags far behind other cancers in funding. Patrick Swayze lived 22 months after being diagnosed; 75 percent die within a year. Swayze was 57 when he died.

Dressed in purple — the signature color for pancreatic cancer activists — Niemi Swayze appeared with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., whose mother died of pancreatic cancer, and Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., to support the Pancreatic Cancer Research and Education Act, which was introduced Wednesday in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The measure would give the disease a higher priority, even during tough fiscal times.

Why the lack of attention to pancreatic cancer?

"It's a mystery," Niemi Swayze said. But she noted that other cancers have become high-profile and benefited from more funding and more research, so "there are survivors championing their cause."

With so few survivors of pancreatic cancer, she told a room of friends and family members of the deceased, "it's up to us."

"I'm here speaking on Patrick's behalf."

Pancreatic cancer is usually a silent killer, with few symptoms until the tumor has metastasized.

The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network released a report Wednesday that concludes that federal funding lagged for pancreatic cancer and the low research priority hurt survivor rates.

"For 40 years, the survival rate for pancreatic cancer has remained in the single digits, despite an increase in the incidence of the disease, despite the fact that it is the fourth leading cause of cancer death and at a time when significant progress has been made on other cancers," network President Julie Fleshman said. "The survival rate for pancreatic cancer has remained relatively the same because the federal government's approach to pancreatic cancer has been relatively the same: Provide a trickle of research funding as a response to a river of need."

Research dedicated to pancreatic cancer receives 2 percent of the federal dollars that the National Cancer Institute distributes. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network report found that pancreatic cancer is behind in nearly every important grant category funded by the federal government.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., who's been active on the issue, said in a statement, "Despite the terrifying statistics, it's still one of the most overlooked types of cancer and research continues to be underfunded while the death toll climbs."

Asked about getting funding support at a time of budget-cutting, Lance acknowledged the difficulty but said, "I think this should be a priority within the NIH budget," referring to the National Institutes of Health.

Said Niemi Swayze, "We just need to go to the front of the line."

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Pancreatic Cancer Action Network

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