These Were Patrick Swayze's First Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms, Widow Reveals
The star died in 2009, but Lisa Niemi Swayze is "continuing his fight for him.”
When dancer, actor, and heartthrob Patrick Swayze died of pancreatic cancer at age 57, fans around the world were heartbroken—but no one was more devastated than his wife of 34 years, Lisa Niemi Swayze. "We pretty much spent all our adult life together," she told Today of her husband, whom she married when she was just 18 years old. "It was a very difficult transition. It's like losing an arm and a leg and having to learn how to walk and function all over again while you're in terrific pain."
Fourteen years after his passing, Niemi Swayze is speaking out in hopes of raising awareness of the disease that took his life, in partnership with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. "Cancer may have taken him, but it didn't beat him. And I'm continuing his fight for him," she said to Today. "Patrick fought a very tough and long battle. If his battle has helped anybody else, it would be an absolute honor for him."
And while Niemi Swayze noted that it's very difficult to detect pancreatic cancer early ("something that really has to change," she said), she's now sharing the first cancer signs she and Swayze noticed. Read on to find out which symptom led Niemi Swayze to tell her husband they needed to go to the doctor right away—plus, how she took care of herself during his illness.
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The first sign of trouble showed up in Swayze's eyes.
Because pancreatic cancer may block your liver's bile duct, the disease often causes jaundice, which manifests as yellow eyes and skin, the Mayo Clinic explains. And indeed, this was the symptom that most alarmed Swayze's wife before his diagnosis.
"He came to me and he said, 'Do my eyes look yellow?'" she told Today. Agreeing that they did, she urged her husband not to wait until next week to visit the doctor, which was Swayze's initial plan. "Yellow eyes just doesn't sound normal. We need to go tomorrow," she recalled saying.
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He also experienced digestive trouble.
Jaundice wasn't the only early symptom Swayze suffered from. "He had some digestive problems—pain that wouldn't go away," Niemi Swayze shared. "But it was mostly the yellow eyes that sent us to the doctor."
The Mayo Clinic reports that because pancreatic cancer tumors may press on abdominal nerves, stomach pain is common in later stages of the disease. Bowel obstructions are another symptom of growing tumors, they add. "Pancreatic cancer that grows into or presses on the first part of the small intestine (duodenum) can block the flow of digested food from your stomach into your intestines," their experts write.
Pancreatic cancer has a very low survival rate.
Niemi Swayze said that as soon as the doctor looked at Swayze, he sent the actor for a CT scan, which indicated that he was suffering from pancreatic cancer. After undergoing an endoscopy that confirmed the diagnosis, Swayze wasn't optimistic about the future. "As soon as the doctor left the room, he looked at me and said, 'I'm a dead man,'" the star's widow remembers. "A lot of doctors at that time just said, 'Sorry, prepare yourself for the end.'"
Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest of all cancers. In a 2023 report, The American Cancer Society said that the five-year survival rate for the disease went up one percentage point from the year before, to reach 12 percent. Indeed, Swayze passed away less than two years after being diagnosed with the illness.
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Swayze's widow has some advice for caregivers.
Niemi Swayze, who remarried in 2014, told Today that she's "a pretty tough gal. I'm from a long line of Finns, and we're very tough and we can hang in there." Still, she said that caring for her spouse during his journey with cancer took a toll. "As the caregiver, if I were doing it again—and it's very hard because you care so much—you've got to take care of yourself, too," she advised.
"Find a way to give yourself breaks and nourish yourself," Nieme Swayze recommended, saying that she would sometimes go shopping for a couple of hours when someone came to relieve her. Spending time with others in the same boat helped, too. "It's wonderful if you're able to talk to somebody, especially people who are going through a similar situation as you. There can be a lot of anger and existential angst."
However, she said the couple's love got them through the hardest of days. "For Patrick and myself, it was so clear that nothing else mattered except the love that we had between us."