Treatments and drugs

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Treatment for pancreatic cancer depends on the stage and location of the cancer as well as on your age, overall health and personal preferences.

The first goal of pancreatic cancer treatment is to eliminate the cancer, when possible. When that isn't an option, the focus may be on preventing the pancreatic cancer from growing or causing more harm.

When pancreatic cancer is advanced and treatments aren't likely to offer a benefit, your doctor will help to relieve symptoms and make you as comfortable as possible.

Surgery

Surgery may be an option if your pancreatic cancer is confined to the pancreas. Operations used in people with pancreatic cancer include:

  • Surgery for tumors in the pancreatic head. If your pancreatic cancer is located in the head of the pancreas, you may consider an operation called a Whipple procedure (pancreatoduodenectomy).

    The Whipple procedure involves removing the head of your pancreas, as well as a portion of your small intestine (duodenum), your gallbladder and part of your bile duct. Part of your stomach may be removed as well. Your surgeon reconnects the remaining parts of your pancreas, stomach and intestines to allow you to digest food.

    Whipple surgery carries a risk of infection and bleeding. After the surgery, some people experience nausea and vomiting that can occur if the stomach has difficulty emptying (delayed gastric emptying).

    Expect a long recovery after a Whipple procedure. You'll spend several days in the hospital and then recover for several weeks at home.

  • Surgery for tumors in the pancreatic tail and body. Surgery to remove the tail of the pancreas or the tail and a small portion of the body is called distal pancreatectomy. Your surgeon may also remove your spleen. Surgery carries a risk of bleeding and infection.

Research shows pancreatic cancer surgery tends to cause fewer complications when done by experienced surgeons. Don't hesitate to ask about your surgeon's experience with pancreatic cancer surgery. If you have any doubts, get a second opinion.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy beams, such as X-rays, to destroy cancer cells. You may receive radiation treatments before or after cancer surgery, often in combination with chemotherapy. Or, your doctor may recommend a combination of radiation and chemotherapy treatments when your cancer can't be treated surgically.

Radiation therapy usually comes from a machine that moves around you, directing radiation to specific points on your body (external beam radiation). In specialized medical centers, radiation therapy may be delivered during surgery (intraoperative radiation).

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses drugs to help kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy can be injected into a vein or taken orally. You may receive only one chemotherapy drug, or you may receive a combination of chemotherapy drugs.

Chemotherapy can also be combined with radiation therapy (chemoradiation). Chemoradiation is typically used to treat cancer that has spread beyond the pancreas, but only to nearby organs and not to distant regions of the body. This combination may also be used after surgery to reduce the risk that pancreatic cancer may recur.

In people with advanced pancreatic cancer, chemotherapy may be used alone or it may be combined with targeted drug therapy.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy uses drugs that attack specific abnormalities within cancer cells. The targeted drug erlotinib (Tarceva) blocks chemicals that signal cancer cells to grow and divide. Erlotinib is usually combined with chemotherapy for use in people with advanced pancreatic cancer.

Clinical trials

Clinical trials are studies to test new forms of treatment, such as new drugs, new approaches to surgery or radiation treatments, and novel methods such as gene therapy. If the treatment being studied proves to be safer or more effective than are current treatments, it can become the new standard of care.

Clinical trials can't guarantee a cure, and they may have serious or unexpected side effects. On the other hand, cancer clinical trials are closely monitored to ensure they're conducted as safely as possible. And they offer access to treatments that wouldn't otherwise be available to you.

Talk to your doctor about what clinical trials might be appropriate for you.

Nov. 22, 2014

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