Treating pancreatic cancer
Treatment for pancreatic cancer depends on the type, location and stage of your cancer (how far it's spread).
Your age, general health and personal preferences will also be taken into consideration when deciding on your treatment plan.
The first aim will be to completely remove the tumour and any other cancerous cells in your body.
If this isn't possible, the focus will be on preventing the tumour growing and causing further harm.
Sometimes it's not possible to get rid of the cancer or slow it down, so treatment will aim to relieve your symptoms and make you as comfortable as possible.
Cancer of the pancreas is very difficult to treat. In its early stages, this type of cancer rarely causes symptoms, so it's often not detected until it's quite advanced. If the tumour is large or has spread, treating or curing the cancer is much harder.
The Cancer Research UK website has more information about the stages of pancreatic cancer.
Discussing your treatment
Deciding what treatment is best for you can be a difficult process. There's a lot to take in, so it's important to talk about the possible alternatives with a family member or friend.
You should also have an in-depth discussion with your doctor, who can tell you the pros and cons of the treatments available to you.
If at any stage you don't understand the treatment options being explained to you, make sure you ask your doctor for more details.
There are three main ways that cancer of the pancreas can be treated. They are:
Some types of pancreatic cancer will only require one form of treatment, whereas others may require two or a combination of all three.
Surgery is usually the only way pancreatic cancer can be completely cured. However, as the condition is usually advanced by the time it's diagnosed, surgery is only suitable for around 15-20% of people.
However, this isn't a suitable option if your tumour has wrapped itself around important blood vessels. If your cancer has spread to other areas of the body, surgically removing the tumour won't cure you.
Surgery for pancreatic cancer is usually only an option for people who have a good general level of health. This is because pancreas surgery is often long and complex, and the recovery process can be slow.
Sometimes the risks of surgery can outweigh the potential benefits.
Your doctor will discuss with you whether surgery is a suitable option. There are several possible surgical procedures, which are outlined below.
The Whipple procedure is the most common operation used to treat pancreatic cancer, and involves removing the head of the pancreas.
Your surgeon must also remove the first part of your small intestine (bowel), your gall bladder (which stores bile) and part of your bile duct. Sometimes, part of the stomach also has to be removed.
The end of the bile duct and the remaining part of your pancreas is connected to your small intestine. This allows bile and the hormones and enzymes produced by the pancreas to still be released into your system.
After this type of surgery, about one in three people need to take enzymes to help them digest food.
The Whipple procedure involves long and intensive surgery, but it's easier to recover from than a total pancreatectomy (see below).
A distal pancreatectomy involves removing the tail and body of your pancreas.
Your spleen will usually also be removed at the same time. Part of your stomach, bowel, left adrenal gland, left kidney and left diaphragm (the muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdomen) may also be removed.
Like the Whipple procedure, a distal pancreatectomy is a long and complex operation that won't be carried out unless your doctor thinks it's necessary.
During a total pancreatectomy, your entire pancreas will be removed. This is sometimes necessary due to the position of the tumour.
Your surgeon will also remove your:
- bile duct
- gall bladder
- part of your small intestine
- part of your stomach (sometimes)
- surrounding lymph nodes (part of the immune system)
After a total pancreatectomy, you'll need to take enzymes to help your digestive system digest food. You'll also have diabetes for the rest of your life because the pancreas produces insulin – the hormone that regulates blood sugar.
Removing your spleen can increase your risk of developing infections and may also affect your blood's ability to clot. This means you'll be on penicillin (or an alternative antibiotic if you're allergic to it) for the rest of your life, and you'll need to have regular vaccinations.
Sometimes, you may need to take tablets for a short period to stop the platelets in your blood sticking to each other. Platelets are a type of blood cell that cause your blood to clot (thicken).
Surgery to ease your symptoms
Although surgery may not be a suitable way of removing your tumour, you may be offered it to help ease your symptoms.
This type of surgery won't cure your cancer, but will mean that your condition is easier to manage, and it will make you more comfortable.
To help control jaundice, a stent can be placed in your bile duct using endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). This will help keep the bile duct open and prevent bilirubin – the yellow chemical in bile – from building up and causing jaundice.
If a stent isn't a suitable option for you, you may need an operation to bypass your blocked bile duct. Your surgeon will cut the bile duct just above the blockage and reconnect it to your intestine, which will allow your bile to drain away.
These types of surgery are much less intensive than surgery carried out on the pancreas. The recovery time is much quicker, and people find that their jaundice improves significantly.
Chemotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses anti-cancer medicines to either kill the cancerous (malignant) cells in your body or stop them multiplying.
Chemotherapy treatment is often used alongside surgery and radiotherapy (see below) to help ensure that as much of the cancer is treated as possible.
Chemotherapy may be given:
- before surgery – to try to shrink the cancer, so that there's a greater chance of the surgeon being able to remove all of the cancer
- after surgery – to help reduce the risk of the cancer coming back
- when surgery isn't possible – to try to shrink the cancer, slow its growth and relieve your symptoms
Some chemotherapy medicines can be taken orally (by mouth), but some need to be given directly into a vein (intravenously).
Chemotherapy also attacks normal, healthy cells, which is why this type of treatment can have many side effects. The most common side effects include:
- mouth sores
- increased risk of infection
These are usually only temporary, and should improve once you've completed your treatment.
The chemotherapy medications can also be used in combination, so your doctor may suggest using one medication or a combination of two or three.
Combining chemotherapy medications can give a better chance of shrinking or controlling the cancer, but increases the chance of side effects. Sometimes, the risks of chemotherapy can outweigh the potential benefits.
Read more about chemotherapy.
Radiotherapy is a form of cancer therapy that uses high-energy beams of radiation to help shrink your tumour and relieve pain.
Side effects of radiotherapy can include:
- skin rashes
- loss of appetite
- nausea or vomiting
These side effects are usually only temporary, and should improve after your treatment has been completed.
Read more about radiotherapy.
The Cancer Research UK website has more information about the types of treatment for pancreatic cancer.
Page last reviewed: 10/07/2014
Next review due: 10/07/2016