Pancreatic Cancer Treatment Options

Treatment options for people with cancer of the pancreas are surgery, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and radiation therapy. You’ll probably receive more than one type of treatment.

The treatment that’s right for you depends mainly on the following:

  • The location of the tumor in your pancreas
  • Whether the disease has spread
  • Your age and general health

At this time, cancer of the pancreas can be cured only when it’s found at an early stage (before it has spread) and only if surgery can completely remove the tumor. For people who can’t have surgery, other treatments may be able to help them live longer and feel better.

You may have a team of specialists to help plan your treatment. Specialists who treat cancer of the pancreas include surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, and gastroenterologists.

Your health care team can describe your treatment choices, the expected results of each, and the possible side effects. Because cancer treatments often damage healthy cells and tissues, side effects are common. These side effects depend on many factors, including the type and extent of treatment. Side effects may not be the same for each person, and they may even change from one treatment session to the next. Before treatment starts, ask your health care team about possible side effects and how treatment may change your normal activities. You and your health care team can work together to develop a treatment plan that meets your needs.

Surgery

Surgery may be an option for people with an early stage of pancreatic cancer. The surgeon usually removes only the part of the pancreas that has cancer. But, in some cases, the whole pancreas may be removed.

The type of surgery depends on the location of the tumor in the pancreas. Surgery to remove a tumor in the head of the pancreas is called a Whipple procedure. The Whipple procedure is the most common type of surgery for pancreatic cancer. You and your surgeon may talk about the types of surgery and which may be right for you.

In addition to part or all of your pancreas, the surgeon usually removes the following nearby tissues:

  • Duodenum
  • Gallbladder
  • Common bile duct
  • Part of your stomach

Also, the surgeon may remove your spleen and nearby lymph nodes.

Surgery for pancreatic cancer is a major operation. You will need to stay in the hospital for one to two weeks afterward. Your health care team will watch for signs of bleeding, infection, or other problems. It takes time to heal after surgery, and the time needed to recover is different for each person. You may have pain or discomfort for the first few days. It’s common to feel weak or tired for a while. You may need to rest at home for one to three months after leaving the hospital.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Most people with pancreatic cancer get chemotherapy. For early pancreatic cancer, chemotherapy is usually given after surgery, but in some cases, it’s given before surgery. For advanced cancer, chemotherapy is used alone, with targeted therapy, or with radiation therapy.

Chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer is usually given by vein (intravenous). The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel throughout your body. Chemotherapy is given in cycles. Each treatment period is followed by a rest period. The length of the rest period and the number of cycles depend on the anticancer drugs used.

Some drugs used for pancreatic cancer also may cause tingling or numbness in your hands and feet.

Targeted Therapy

People with cancer of the pancreas who can’t have surgery may receive a type of drug called targeted therapy along with chemotherapy.

Targeted therapy slows the growth of pancreatic cancer. It also helps prevent cancer cells from spreading. The drug is taken by mouth.

Side effects may include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, a rash, and shortness of breath.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. It can be given along with other treatments, including chemotherapy.

The radiation comes from a large machine. The machine aims beams of radiation at the cancer in the abdomen. You’ll go to a hospital or clinic 5 days a week for several weeks to receive radiation therapy. Each session takes about 30 minutes.

Although radiation therapy is painless, it may cause other side effects. The side effects include nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. You may also feel very tired.