Jonathan Frakes, Armin Shimerman, and Kitty Swink share more than a friendship, more than a “Star Trek” connection, more than a marriage (Shimerman and Swink have been husband and wife since 1981), and more than a history that saw Frakes and Shimerman first work together back in the 1980s at the New York City theater company Impossible Ragtime Theater, or IRT. Frakes, Shimerman, and Swink are connected by pancreatic cancer and by a desire to rid the world of the disease one day. And in the meantime, they’re doing everything humanly possible to A), bring awareness to the dreaded illness; B), raise funds to treat it; C), support patients, their families, and doctors; and, D), lend their time and name recognition to PanCAN. That’s short for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, an organization committed to points A, B, and C.
Mr. Star Trek and Mr. & Mrs. Shimerman
Frakes, of course, is Mr. “Star Trek” these days. He played Will Riker on “The Next Generation” and in the “TNG” feature films, and he’s since become a top Hollywood director who’s called the shots on numerous films and shows, among them the “Star Trek” outings “TNG,” “First Contact,” “Insurrection,” “Deep Space Nine,” “Voyager,” “Discovery” and “Picard.” He’s even returned as Riker on both “Picard” and the animated series “Lower Decks.”
Shimerman appeared in several episodes of “TNG” before landing the role of Quark, the Ferengi barkeep, on “DS9,” and he’s also beloved/hated for his recurring role as Principal Snyder on “Buffy The Vampire Slayer.” These days, Shimerman is deeply involved in teaching Shakespeare, directing, acting and writing. He often participates in productions at the Antaeus Theatre Company in Glendale, California, is about to star in a production of the slapstick comedy, “The Play That Goes Wrong” at the New Theatre in Overland Park, Kansas, and recently finished writing the upcoming third installment in his well-received “Illyria” book series.
And Shimerman’s “much, much better half” – his words – Swink twice guest-starred on “DS9,” first as Bajoran Minister Rozahn in “Sanctuary” and then as Luaran in “Tacking Into the Wind,” reprising the latter role for the video game “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine — The Fallen.” Her other credits include “Babylon 5,” “Becker,” “NYPD Blue,” “Monk,” “Crossing Jordan,” “Leverage,” and “The Fosters.” Back in 2009, Frakes directed an episode of “Leverage” titled “The Juror #6 Job” that guest-starred Brent Spiner, Shimerman, and Swink. She is also an active member of the Antaeus Theatre Company.
Swink had already beaten breast cancer when, in 2004, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She got lucky and lived to tell the tale, with Shimerman by her side every step of the way. Swink is at a miraculous 18 years and counting cancer-free. Sadly, Frakes’ brother Daniel wasn’t as fortunate. He succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 1997, mere months after his diagnosis. Swink and Shimerman eventually found their way to PanCAN, and they recruited Frakes to the cause. And the three of them last week joined forces for a heartfelt conversation – laced with some humor, too – to share their pancreatic cancer stories and shine a light on PanCAN, which will hold its annual national awareness/fundraising PurpleStride event on April 30.
Speaking From the Heart — & Experience
Below is part one of our exclusive conversation with Swink, Shimerman, and Frakes. Visit Heavy on Star Trek again tomorrow to read part two.
Kitty, since it’s always ladies first and you’re a survivor, let’s start with you. Go back in time to your diagnosis. Were you feeling ill? Was it just a checkup? What was it like – there’s no easy way to ask this question – to hear that, because it’s got to be earth-shattering when a doctor breaks that news?
Kitty Swink: I’d been having lower back pain for a long time, but I’m a jock and I just figured it was that. Then I started inexplicably losing weight. That’s not something I usually want to do. I was visiting Cecily Adams — who played Moogie (on “DS9”) — in the hospital, and her childhood nanny said, “Don’t worry about Cecily, worry about you.” I came home and said that to Armin. Armin said, “Why don’t you call your doctor?” It was on a Thursday. On Friday, the doctor’s office called and said “We had somebody cancel. Come in right now.” On Monday, we were at a funeral (laughs ruefully) and when we got home, there was a message from the doctor saying, “Your kidneys and your liver are shutting down. Go to the hospital right now. Go to Cedars right now.” We got in the car and we drove to Cedars. By the time they took me in, I was yellow. It took them about four days to figure out that I needed to have a whipple procedure. Is that right, honey?
Armin Shimerman: I think so, yeah. About four days.
Swink: I was pretty loaded, so that may not be right…
Shimerman: It wasn’t so much that you needed the whipple. They had to do the diagnosis first, and then they decided on the whipple.
Swink: Then they did the whipple. Armin didn’t want me to hear, when he wasn’t in the room, that they had found cancer. Unfortunately, I did hear when he wasn’t in the room. It’s a dark night of the soul, but I almost immediately – except for a couple of times – went, “I’m not done. I gotta stick around.” So, I got busy, and I was really lucky. I was operable. I was incredibly fit. I had great insurance. Thank you, Screen Actors Guild. I had a great husband and really good friends. A good family. I was lucky.
This was 2003 or 2004?
Armin, what was your reaction?
Shimerman: Terror, absolute terror, but I didn’t let Kitty know that. Kitty has had ailments all of her married life. I was concerned because she was having a lot of symptoms that were relatively exacerbating, and so we went to the doctor. Then, as Kitty said, when we came home from the funeral and heard the urgent message from the doctor, we dashed over to Cedars. We sat in the waiting room for a while, even though the doctor had said, “You have to take her in immediately.” We did sit, and they kept her overnight at Cedars. By the morning, they were pretty sure, but they weren’t 100% sure that she had cancer, because she was yellow. From there, we had to wait for the diagnosis. The doctor, who was in charge, didn’t work Fridays or Saturdays.
That’s what Kitty meant by I didn’t want anyone to hear it. I wanted her to hear it from her doctor, who she trusted. She knew this doctor before. She had had cancer before and this was the doctor who had saved her life after the breast cancer diagnosis, and I wanted her to hear it from him. Unfortunately, somebody let her know the news, which I was very disappointed in. Then, we had to wait. The whipple was the device they used to save her and to take the cancer out of her pancreas. They needed to have many surgeons in the room. It’s a very difficult procedure.
They told us at that time it was second only to a heart and lung transplant for the amount of work and intensity it takes to do that procedure. They needed various surgeons, and they couldn’t get them all in the same room at the same time. We were getting very anxious about this and were starting to complain. The lead doctor, Kitty’s friend, insisted, and finally got an operating room for eight hours. You had to schedule an eight-hour operation. All the moons and stars aligned, she had the operation, and it was very successful. Because this is a story for a “Star Trek” site, while Kitty was having her operation, Cecily Adams died. The first thing Kitty asked me when she came out of the surgery… She very sweetly said, “How is Cecily doing?” Unfortunately, I lied to her. I said, “She’s fine. She’s fine.” Eventually, she got the news, but I didn’t think that was the time to tell her.
What resources did you have to turn to for information, for shared experiences? Was PanCAN in existence in 2004?
Swink: It was around then. It was a pretty new organization at that point. I didn’t really know about PanCAN until a few years later when our niece, Amy Shimerman, started doing PurpleStride every year in my honor. Then, Charlotte Rae (from “The Facts of Life”), who was a dear friend of mine, got me involved because she had pancreatic cancer and I was her rabbi, so to speak.
Jonathan, let’s get to you. Your brother was so young, right? Please share your story. What was his experience?
Jonathan Frakes: He was 41. He did not take care of himself. He was jaundiced when we insisted that he go to the hospital. We went to the doctor in Bethlehem. They sent us down to the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center in Philly. I guess somewhere in between Bethlehem and Philly, my mom or dad called me and said, “You’ve got to get up here. This does not look good.” They opened him up, and they looked inside and made a very fast decision, apparently. They came back out and told us that it was inoperable, that he had six months at most to live, “Get on with it, take him home, and make him comfortable.” We did. Then he came out to visit us. He stayed with Genie (Francis, a/k/a Mrs. Frakes, who famously plays Laura on “General Hospital”) and me in L.A. for a while. He was with not the best partner at the time. It was very complicated and sad. He had a daughter who he hadn’t really seen enough, from a woman who he had married twice. It was a mishegoss of misfortune. I lived with him in New York, when we were at the IRT. He was much more than a brother to me.
Both your parents were still alive then, right?
Frakes: After Daniel died… my father had Alzheimer’s and he never really recovered from Daniel’s death. My mother just (recently) died at 94. Now, I mentioned IRT. That was a theater group I was in, with Armin, in the early 80s. Impossible Ragtime Theatre. The best part of my connection to PanCAN is this… After Daniel’s death, I told my mom about Kitty, who had survived pancreatic cancer. When Daniel died, there was about a 3% survival rate. I believe when Kitty survived, there was a 4% survival rate. We’re now up to an 11% survival rate. So, Kitty became this beacon of hope, not only to me, but to my mother because of how passionately I spoke about her to my mother. Whenever I’d go see my mom, she would ask about Kitty, which was really a way of keeping Daniel with us. It has meant so much to me. Then, we were at a gathering in Marina’s (Marina Sirtis) backyard a couple of years ago. Kitty said, “I’d like you to join me in this thing, if you’d be interested in getting involved.” I’ve never had a charity approach me that I could so easily say, “Yes, let me in. I get it. I’m in. I know what it’s about.” I have them, Kitty and Armin, to thank for that. It’s also allowed us to see more of each other, which has been a mitzvah.
PanCAN Makes a Difference
Shimerman: As far as PanCAN, we wish we had known about PanCAN because it’s an incredible organization. It would have helped all of us had we known about them. This is why we’re doing this today, to make sure that more people know about this organization. I talked to a lady just the other day. Her significant other had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She didn’t know where to start. She just said, “What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?” I said, “I will give you the advice that I can give you, but really, the place you need to go to is PanCAN, so that you know where to start.” They help you. They counsel you. They raise funds so that new procedures can be found. It’s an incredible organization. We are all very proud to be part of it.
Frakes: Pamela Marquardt, the woman who runs it, is the definition of tirelessly involved.
Visit Heavy on Star Trek again tomorrow to read part two of our interview with Kitty Swink, Jonathan Frakes, and Armin Shimerman. Click HERE to support Team Star Trek Against Cancer.