About Pancreatic Cancer


There are three primary treatment options for people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, each of them designed to extend life and relieve symptoms. These include surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.

  • Surgery: About one in five of patients is a candidate for surgery, primarily those whose cancer has not spread. Primary surgical options include the Whipple procedure, where the head of the pancreas, gallbladder, part of the stomach, part of the small intestine, and the bile duct are removed; total pancreatectomy, or removal of the entire pancreas, part of the stomach, part of the small intestine, the common bile duct, the gallbladder, the spleen, and nearby lymph nodes; and distal pancreatectomy—removal of the body and tail of the pancreas and often the spleen. Several surgical options designed to relieve symptoms also are available for patients whose cancer has spread and cannot be removed.

Treat­ment with the cancer-fighting drug gemcitabine is known to lengthen survival in candidates for surgery. When combined with gemcitabine, the anticancer drug erlotinib (Tarceva) also has demonstrated improvement in advanced pancreatic cancer survival. Clinical trials involving several new agents combined with radiation and surgery also may extend survival in certain patients.

  • Radiation therapy: This uses high-energy x-rays or other forms of radiation to eliminate cancer cells or prevent them from growing. External radiation therapy focuses radiation onto the cancer site using a machine that is operated near the patient. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in seeds, catheters or other media placed on or near the cancer site.
  • Chemotherapy: This is a form of cancer treatment that uses drugs to halt the uncontrolled growth of cancer cells by killing them or by preventing them from replicating. Chemotherapy often is administered orally or injected into a patient, enabling drugs to enter the bloodstream and travel to the tumor site. How and how often chemotherapy is delivered depends upon how advanced a patient's pancreatic cancer is and other factors.
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