As the star of Dirty Dancing and Ghost, Patrick Swayze had the world at his feet, but cancer doesn’t care who you are – it just wants to possess you. Lisa Swayze tells how love helped them battle the monster together
One of the most memorable character sketches in Rob Lowe’s 2010 memoir is this one, describing his Outsiders co-star: “Patrick Swayze ... walks in as cool as you want, wearing tight jeans and a tattered, sleeveless Harley- Davidson T-shirt, revealing his massive, ripped arms. (This is his uniform, he never changes it, and if I looked like him, neither would I.)
“The guy is... literally made of iron. He’s very high-strung, amped, and ready to storm the battlements at the drop of a hat... He makes Tom Cruise look lobotomised.
“‘I was a gymnast in high school,’ he informs us. (His list of previous accomplishments will grow to include ballet dancer, bow-and-arrow specialist, motocross expert, horseman, guitar player, singer, songwriter, construction worker, carpenter and artist, to name a few.)... Swayze is a relentless spirit.”
When I mention this to Lisa Niemi Swayze at the start of a phone call to Houston, laughter erupts before I’ve finished getting the words out. No point in asking if she recognises the portrait, the answer’s obvious.
Patrick Swayze was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer in 2008, and died 21 months later aged 57, after throwing every atom of his considerable life force into fighting the disease. And though you’d think that alone was a full-time job, in that time the Dirty Dancing heart-throb starred in a TV series called The Beast and, with his wife of 34 years, penned a memoir entitled The Time of My Life.
Lisa has now written Worth Fighting For, a brave, unsparing depiction of the intensity of caring for someone seriously ill. We’re there through every step of Patrick’s diagnosis and treatment, and also the moment when, as she writes, “We were now not getting better. We were dying.” Ultimately the experience of care-giving lies at the heart of her memoir, not the fact that the patient in question is an internationally famous actor once voted The Sexiest Man Alive by US magazine People.
Even over an impersonal telephone connection, Lisa’s warmth and humanity are evident. She sometimes struggles to find her words – a poignant reminder that she was a pathologically shy girl who wound up at the centre of the attention showered upon her famous husband – largely because he proudly dragged her there to stand at his side.
It seemed to start with a glass of champagne that tore up Patrick’s throat as he toasted the arrival of 2008. The Swayzes were visiting friends in Aspen, Colorado, and he had been suffering from heartburn and indigestion. Back in Los Angeles a week later, he asked, “Do my eyes look yellow to you?”
Lisa bundled him off to the doctor, who launched a battery of tests that revealed a 5cmx4cm mass at the top of Patrick’s pancreas.
More invasive tests followed, and new doctors speaking in hushed, concerned tones – until one blurted out the unthinkable: it was pancreatic cancer. Patrick’s immediate reaction was, “I’m a dead man.”
In the United States, the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer hasn’t altered in 40 years. Of 43,000 people diagnosed annually, roughly 37,000 die. The average life expectancy is three to six months. “There are some doctors who don’t even encourage their patients to fight,” says Lisa. “They just tell them to go home and get their affairs in order. That’s how deadly this disease is, because although it’s an aggressive cancer, there are no symptoms until it’s in an advanced stage.”
Patrick rebounded, and decided: “I just want to stay alive long enough to see a cure.” She tells me they were “realistic optimists. We knew the statistics and weren’t going to ignore that, but at the same time we had to have hope because we knew – I still know – that at some point someone’s going to get better. They’re going to go on a clinical trial and they’re going to get better. Why couldn’t it be him?” Home was command centre and soon resembled an army hospital, full of medical supplies. Wasn’t that tough on a couple who prided themselves on living close to nature, away from the flashier excesses of Hollywood?
“Patrick liked all that paraphernalia,” she says. “He liked being prepared for everything. When deliveries would come it was like, ‘Yippee, it’s here!’ They were tools in his survival. Anything that was going to assist us was very, very welcome.”
Patrick wasn’t a candidate for surgery because of the extent of his cancer, but he was enrolled in a clinical trial whereby he was given a chemotherapy drug called Gemcitabine (known as Gemzar), coupled with one called PTK, or Vatalanib. In time he’d work through a number of other chemotherapies, but ultimately, despite the extraordinary care he received, his compromised immune system couldn’t cope. Like many others, he fell victim to what are called rolling infections, and treating those meant calling off the chemo.
Lisa kept lists. She did her research, and took copious notes when talking to doctors. Her brother’s wife, oncologist Dr Maria Scouros, was on speed dial. Always the more pragmatic of the couple, she built spreadsheets for Patrick’s medication schedule, and studied nutrition, painfully aware that feeding the patient is also feeding the cancer, but keen to ensure that he received optimum nutrition, even when his appetite disappeared.
Patrick fought for his quality of life, too. When he had to receive total parenteral nutrition (intravenous feeding), he rigged up a backpack so he could move around the ranch during the daily four hour feeds. He joked, “Nobody puts Patrick Swayze’s pancreas in a corner!” and speculated that if he lost any more weight, his next gig would be “Holocaust – The Musical.”
It’s worth backtracking a bit. The Swayzes’ love story is described as a fairy tale, even by them. Insofar as they loved each other passionately for more than three decades, that’s true enough. But the marriage was plagued with problems, including Patrick’s addiction to alcohol. Without betraying their most private secrets, Lisa makes it clear that life could be turbulent. They spent 2003 living apart, and as late as 2007 were close to capsizing once more, only reconciling again, and for good, after a psychic – or someone highly intuitive, Lisa’s not sure which – came round and banged their heads together.
It must have felt like a hideous cosmic joke to receive Patrick’s diagnosis not long after that? “Unbelievably! It was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’ Since I’ve lost Patrick, I look at love a totally different way. Patrick and I loved each other, we did incredible things together, and still we had our bumps along the way. I kept on thinking, ‘if only’ – that he needs to do this or he needs to do that, because I’m unhappy. I look back on the times when I was complaining and not feeling happy about the relationship – that was love. I now see love as more of a practice. Love’s not here to make us happy, but it can make us better people.”
Lisa met Patrick, who was four years older, when they were teenagers. She ran with a wild crowd; he was an athlete and a Casanova. Despite growing up with five brothers, she was painfully shy. Gregarious Patrick was a consummate People Person, born without a self-censoring button – which later made him a darling of talk show hosts and journalists keen for a sparkling soundbite.
As a couple their strengths and weaknesses made for a balanced equation. They were living in New York city while studying dance. To Lisa’s surprise, her normally liberal mum accused them of “playing house”. Patrick’s reaction was to propose. Lisa was sceptical of the institution of marriage, uncertain of her commitment. Even at their 1975 wedding she thought, “Oh well, we can always get divorced later.”
Neither could have anticipated that Patrick would find spectacular success, not to mention fame, with the box office smashes Dirty Dancing and Ghost, or imagine how that would thrust them into the spotlight.
But illness ignores celebrity. “You’re another human being, going at it,” says Lisa. “Of course Patrick and I, that’s the world we moved in, with paparazzi and people making us feel like we’re really, really important. But we didn’t see ourselves that way. We felt like if we didn’t keep things real, what were we going to bring to our work?
“Yes, the book is honest. I needed to give enough to have a true essence of the journey [otherwise] it won’t be of value to anybody. It was challenging and heartbreaking, but at the same time, the journey yielded so many gifts and wonderful lessons. There are so many people going through the same thing. There’s absolutely no way you could ever prepare for it.” If there’s a message, she says, it’s that, “There’s no time like the present to get on with what you want to do and who you want to be in life, because it’s not going to last. That’s a hard thing to remember.”
Does she ever resent the time they lost to Patrick’s alcohol addiction? Typically, she turns that question on herself. “I spent a few weeks beating myself up, especially for [what occurred] in the last week and a half of his life. We had fought so hard, and ultimately it was my decision that it was time not to do treatment any more. It was an incredibly difficult decision, and I questioned myself. We always said we were going to fight until it was time not to fight anymore. It was obvious that we were there, however, I still agonised: Did we give up too soon? Once I got over that, I started blaming myself for everything that ever went wrong in our relationship – all the times that I was grumpy and got mad.”
Does she think this compunction to blame herself is intrinsically female? “I agree with what you say, but for me, what’s slightly different, is that pancreatic cancer is such a monster of a disease. We felt like we were in a battle. I could almost see it standing there and I was battling it. We both felt like we willed his survival into existence by sheer intention. That’s kind of like saying, ‘I am going to do my best to control this. I am going to do my best to control death.’ Ultimately there’s no way you can do that, and when it was time for him to go, it was time. But I couldn’t let go of that sense of responsibility that I could have turned it around.”
Her diary entries from those 21 months are often self-lacerating, full of complaints that she’s fat, and lists of her regrets about choices she’s made in life. Why couldn’t she see that she was – is – strong, courageous and beautiful?
With a big sigh, she says, “As much energy as I always had, and positive intention, I was struggling with depression and grief. I didn’t want to lay my negative thoughts on Patrick because a lot of his fight was trying to take care of me. You can’t help but feel that life isn’t fair. I had a lot of anger and no one to blame, so the only place to turn that anger was at myself.
“We’re raised [to believe] that if we’re really good we’re going to be rewarded, but cancer doesn’t discriminate and neither does death. It doesn’t matter whether you’re good, bad, old, young. ”
Worth Fighting For doesn’t stint in its descriptions, and the final pages are distressing, so visceral, that it’s like being at Patrick’s deathbed. But it’s also full of love and joy, because Patrick, happy to be alive, greeted every new day with excitement.
Sadly, that was regularly undercut by the tabloids, so much so that Lisa writes, “May 2009 was one of those months that Patrick was being killed off more than usual by the press”. He called their behaviour “emotional cruelty”, and for her part, regularly being told “Your husband is going to die”, damaged Lisa profoundly. On a happier note, they were overwhelmed by the outpouring of love, information and support from his fans.
What would have made her life easier? “Cancer sets out to destroy everyone in its path. The caregivers are carrying an enormous burden. When you offer support, try not to bring your own baggage into it about death. The people dealing with the illness are getting a heavy, heavy dose of that. Always ask how the family is doing: the patient generally gets all the attention. I was lucky not to have that in my case, but it’s always good to check in with the caregiver. They’re so integral to the fight; it’s important that they take care of themselves. It’s a huge physically and emotionally exhausting job.”
Nevertheless, she and Patrick’s younger brother, Donny, who put his life on hold to be there around the clock to help, are grateful to have had the opportunity to care for Patrick. “It is a very moving and a sacred period, when someone is leaving this world, and it’s an honour to be there.”
You don’t become an angel when you’re given a terminal diagnosis, Lisa reminds readers. Sometimes she felt like she was doing all the hard work, and she and Patrick fought. Then she made a conscious decision to let it go, and they both became more accepting of each other. “How could you not love someone with all your heart if it’s only today, or even this moment that you might have that pleasure,” she writes.
“Adding another day on to the joy you already feel with this person just adds more pleasure ... I try to remember that now. When I look at the sky, my friends, animals ... It’s hard to remember that kind of happiness. No, let me put it this way: sometimes as humans, we find it hard to hold such happiness. But I try.”
• Worth Fighting For: Love, Loss and Moving Forward, is out now from Simon & Schuster, priced £16.99.