After a courageous battle, Patrick Swayze has died from pancreatic cancer. The Ghost and Dirty Dancing star was diagnosed just eighteen months ago in March 2008. Initially, doctors were optimistic about Swayze's prognosis. However, pancreatic cancer is widely held to be one of the deadliest cancers around.

According to the National Cancer Institute, 42,470 men and women will be diagnosed with this cancer that affects the pancreas in 2009, and 35,240 will die from it. The overall five-year survival rate is just 5.5 percent.

A few factors make pancreatic cancer deadly and difficult to treat. First, symptoms rarely occur until the disease has spread. Also, there are currently no good early screening tests at this time. Lauren D. Arnold, a postdoctoral research associate in the department of surgery at Washington University in St. Louis states that most people diagnosed with this cancer will die within two years.

Currently, the best chance against pancreatic cancer is prevention. Arnold recommends changing the risk factors within your control such as cigarette smoking and high body mass index.

Risk Factors for Pancreatic Cancer

  • Cigarette smoking: increases your risk by two to three times and is the single biggest risk factor for the disease.
  • Diabetes: people with diabetes are much more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than non-diabetics.
  • Obesity: a leading cause of type 2 diabetes.
  • High exposure to chemicals at work.
  • A high-fat diet.
  • Age: being over 60 years old.
  • Gender: males are more likely to develop the disease than women.
  • Being African American: in a study conducted by Arnold and her research team, African-Americans had a 42 percent increased risk of pancreatic cancer death compared to whites.
  • Family history: your risk triples if you have an immediate relative who had the disease. You're also more likely to get it if you have a family member who had colon or ovarian cancer, states the NCI.
  • Chronic pancreatitis: according to the NCI, this condition may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.

Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer

In advanced stages symptoms may include:

  • Upper abdomen and upper back pain
  • Jaundice--yellow skin, eyes and dark urine
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting

Only your doctor can confirm a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, using tests such as physical examination, CT-scan, blood and urine tests, and a biopsy.

One of the more reliable diagnostic tools is endoscopic ultrasound combined with a biopsy called fine needle aspiration (EUS-FNA). A thin flexible camera is gently fed through the mouth and into the stomach.  The American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy indicates that it has a 99.1 percent accuracy rate in diagnosing abnormal growths or tumors on the pancreas.

Treatment for Pancreatic Cancer

This deadly cancer is difficult to control once it spreads to other parts of the body, such as the lymph nodes or liver. Treatment for pancreatic cancer depends on the stage of your disease. The standard treatments include surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.

Other treatments include injectable pain medication, dietary changes, and biologic therapy or immunotherapy, which focuses on boosting the immune system to fight the disease.

Earlier Detection of Pancreatic Cancer

Because pancreatic cancer symptoms do not surface until the latter stages of disease, it pays to be proactive. Early testing isn't routine for people with risk factors such as relatives who had this cancer, smokers or diabetics. However, it's worth asking your doctor to refer you to a gastroenterologist or oncologist for testing, especially if you're at risk and over 50.

Celebrities Who Died from Pancreatic Cancer

Jack Benny, comedian (February 14, 1894  - December 26, 1974)

Joan Crawford, actress (March 23, 1905 - May 10, 1977)

Fernando Lamas, actor (January 9, 1915 - October 8, 1982)

Donna Reed, actress (January 27, 1921 - January 14, 1986)

Rex Harrison, actor (March 5, 1908 -  June 2, 1990)

Michael Landon, actor (October 31, 1936 - July 1, 1991)

Fred Gwynne, actor (July 10, 1926 - July 2, 1993)

Patrick Swayze, actor (August 18, 1952 - September 14, 2009)


National Cancer Institute, Michigan State University, Reuters, American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy

American Association for Cancer Research press release "Pancreatic Cancer Affects Blacks at Higher Rates."