Swayze’s Battle Sheds Light on Progress in Fighting Pancreatic Cancer

Jason Merrill
Barnes-Jewish Hospital

Jan. 6, 2009 – With the upcoming debut of Patrick Swayze’s new television drama The Beast, media attention has focused on the actor’s recent battle with pancreatic cancer as well as progress being made in treating the disease – one that’s had notably improved survival rates over the past few years.

“Results for treating pancreatic cancer are improving yearly,” says Steven Strasberg, MD, a surgeon at the Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine. “At one time, the number of patients getting pancreatic cancer was roughly equal to the number of people who were dying of it, but in the last few years, we’ve seen a remarkable improvement in results.”

New approaches at Siteman give patients with early stage disease a chance at survival they would not have had in the past.

For example, in the August 2008 Annals of SurgeryDavid Linehan, MD, and his colleagues at Washington University published the results of a clinical study showing patients who receive other treatments in conjunction with the Whipple procedure – a large surgery where the cancer is removed in its entirety along with the duodenum and bile duct – showed improved outcomes.

“We used a combination of surgery followed by radiation, immunotherapy and chemotherapy, and we saw improvement in three-year survival for patients who underwent the Whipple procedure,” says Linehan, a surgeon at Siteman.

Mortality for the procedure has gone from 15 percent 25 years ago to about 1 percent today if done at a high-volume center like Siteman, where about 110 Whipple procedures are performed annually.

Still, early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer remains key.

“I think it’s critically important in this disease if we’re going to make an impact,” Linehan says. “We have to diagnose it earlier when more patients are candidates for surgical treatment.”