Through her commitment to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN), Lisa Niemi Swayze, a celebrity team leader for the nonprofit’s largest annual fundraiser, PurpleStride, which takes place April 30, strives to raise awareness — and funds — for the thousands of other families facing the same difficult circumstances that she and her husband, actor Patrick Swayze, shared 13 years ago.
My teenager daughter’s eyes lit up when she heard I was interviewing you. That doesn’t happen too often. What’s that about?
Patrick’s going to be famous for a very, very long time because Dirty Dancing holds up so well. It’s just going to play forever. He would joke, “I’m on my fourth generation of fans.” He thought it was pretty hilarious, because people were coming up to him to say they were fans or to get his autograph, and they weren’t even born [when Dirty Dancing came out in 1987].
What keeps you motivated to keep at your work with PanCAN?
I’m finishing this fight for him. It can be hard — every time I talk about this, I get a little choked up — sometimes to keep on going, because you get away and go, “I don’t need to hurt and get upset and get emotional. I’m doing enough of that on my own already.” But it’s for him. The survival rate can be very dismal. It’s up to the loved ones to continue. If we don’t have the courage to hang in there, we’re going to be doomed to have too many people repeat what Patrick went through. He fought like a true hero and didn’t want to leave us. I didn’t want him to leave.
What’s happening on April 30, and what role does this national fundraising effort play in finding a cure?
Roughly 70,000 people are expected to come together [and walk] for what we call our PurpleStride [PurpleStride.org]. PurpleStride is one of the most powerful tools PanCAN has in raising awareness and funding. We’re moving in the right direction, but it needs to be faster.
What’s your goal for PurpleStride?
This is my first time leading a team. If you want to be on my team, register at PurpleStride.org. I also call it, “My way or the highway,” which is a Road House line [the 1989 movie Patrick starred in]. We’re going to kick this cancer’s butt. Go online and find [a team] in your community. Wear purple — there’s going to be a lot of purple on April 30. That’s our color.
How can it be all these years later that there’s no cure yet?
Pancreatic cancer is a very tough disease to treat. It isn’t, like, “We got this, and it works for everyone.” It’s very individualized, which is why pancreatic cancer is actually now heavily involved in targeted therapy. You look at what your body makeup is, and what your chances are with what particular kind of drug, so you don’t waste time. I think that’s a big reason why our numbers have improved some.
You’ve written about the courage Patrick had as he battled illness. Is there a special memory of that courage that still stands out?
We were in Chicago, and he was shooting the TV series The Beast. He was working five days a week, 16 hours a day, and getting chemotherapy on the weekends. As we say in Texas: “He was kicking ass and taking names.” He was due for one of these landmark scans you do at certain times to see where you’re at. It can be a very frightening experience. We’re in that dark room, looking at his scan, and we’re seeing improvement. The look on his face — he looked across the room at me, and I met his eyes, and without words — it was like this kind of beautiful, beautiful hope. His eyes said to me, “It looks like I’m going to be around for a little while longer.” Talk about a happy moment. I am the one who’s been left behind here, who knows just how precious that is to everybody else that’s facing this disease.
Is there something we didn’t know about Patrick you want to share with us?
He could do a great Donald Duck [impression]. I’m sure people who have followed Patrick know he could be very irreverent and spontaneous. He was particularly funny when he cursed in Donald Duck. He was kind of a naughty boy on occasion, which made him unpredictable and fun.
You’re remarried now to jeweler Albert DePrisco. Is marriage different when you are older?
There are a lot of things about love that you struggle with when you are younger. When you get older, you have been there, done that, got the merit badge. I’m not going to go down that road anymore, especially when you lose someone so tragically that you wish that everything had been perfect — and nothing ever is. You learn from some of the mistakes you wish you hadn’t made.
Are you still piloting planes?
I am. I sold my plane about two, three years ago, and I really missed it. So I just started flying again. I love it. I thought maybe I wouldn’t. I really hated selling it, but my plane was getting old and it was just getting too expensive. When I first got back into flying, I was driving to the airport [and thinking], What am I doing? I shouldn’t be doing this. The third flight, I went up, and I’m, like, Oh, I’m home. I felt such a sense of calm and joy come over me. I was, like, This is why I fly.
What keeps you too busy to ride your horses?
I’m working on my first piece of fiction—a book. It was inspired by Patrick. I was driving to my yoga class before the pandemic, and I found a CD I hadn’t listened to in a long time. And I went, “Oh my gosh. I love this song.” It was Emmylou Harris playing The Wayfaring Stranger. I really got it, at that moment, that Patrick was just on the other side, and he was there for me — how we feel that grief and find a reason to go on and find comfort in that. It was during the yoga class that this book came into my mind.
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