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Patrick Swayze's widow urges more research funds for pancreatic cancer

By Erika Dimmler, CNN
  • "I think this will be easy to change"
  • Rhode Island senator recalls the swiftness of his mother's death
  • Lisa Niemi Swayze says the cancer is woefully "underfunded"

Washington (CNN) -- One year and five months after losing her husband, actor Patrick Swayze, Lisa Niemi Swayze's voice catches with emotion when she talks about the deadly disease that took Swayze away from her after 34 years of marriage.

That didn't stop her from announcing on Capitol Hill the reintroduction of a bill aimed at making federal government research a priority for pancreatic cancer. A goal, Swayze says, that should be easy to accomplish.

Of the five major cancers, "pancreatic cancer is woefully underfunded," she said, adding "which is why I think this will be easy to change. Because everyone is going to look at it and say why hasn't this happened earlier."

Swayze recalled her husband's decision to fight the disease, despite the odds that were stacked against him. She remembered that when he first learned of his diagnosis, his first thought was "I am a dead man."

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, whose mother died of the disease a mere two months after diagnosis, vividly recalled the conversation he had with his own doctor after informing him of his mother's illness.

After asking his physician if it was serious, Whitehouse said that "the thing that I remember the most about that call was how long the pause was ... as my doctor tried to, I assume, figure out how to tell this to me, how to calibrate what he was going to say. And he finally just said, 'I am so sorry Sheldon.' And that told me everything that I needed to know."

According to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, an organization whose mission is to both advance research and support patients of the disease, the statistics are grim. For 40 years, the survival rate for pancreatic cancer has remained in the single digits. Its five-year survival rate is only 6%. It's the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, and 75% of patients die within the first year of diagnosis. There are few risk factors, its symptoms are vague, and treatment options are severely limited.

Yet despite his own grim diagnosis Patrick Swayze lived almost 22 months with the disease, a rare feat in such an advanced stage. But awareness, and research, is key, his wife says.

Unlike other cancers, so many of those afflicted never survive to tell their stories. Niemi Swayze acknowledged as much. "It has been mentioned that a lot of these cancers have seen such incredible progress over the last 20 years or so have done so because they have survivors championing their causes. And a pancreatic cancer can't boast that kind of alumni ... so it is up to us, friends, loved ones."