Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. It is one of the most commonly used treatments for pancreatic cancer.
Chemotherapy may be given:
- after surgery to reduce the chance of the cancer coming back. This is called adjuvant chemotherapy.
- if surgery isn’t possible to shrink the cancer, relieve symptoms and improve survival. This is called palliative chemotherapy.
- to shrink a cancer before surgery. This is called neoadjuvant chemotherapy. This may be done as part of a clinical trial for pancreatic cancer.
Sometimes, chemotherapy is given with radiotherapy. This is known as chemoradiation. If it is given with radiotherapy before surgery, it is called neoadjuvant chemoradiation. This would usually be as part of a clinical trial. Your doctor or specialist nurse can give you more information about chemoradiation.
Some chemotherapy drugs are given as tablets, but most are given by injection into a vein (intravenously). Intravenous chemotherapy can be given:
- into a fine tube (cannula) in a vein in your arm or hand
- through a flexible plastic tube (central line) that sits in a vein just under your collarbone at the top of your chest
- through a flexible plastic tube (PICC line) that goes into a large vein in the bend of your elbow
- into an implantable port (portacath) that has an opening (port) under the skin on your chest or arm going into a vein.
Some types of chemotherapy are given through a small portable pump, which is attached to your line or port. A controlled amount of the drug is given into the bloodstream over a set period of time. This means that you can go home with the pump, and spend less time in hospital.
Whether chemotherapy is given as tablets or into a vein, the drugs are absorbed into the blood and carried all round the body. The chemotherapy then destroys cancer cells wherever they are in the body.
Chemotherapy is usually given as several sessions of treatment. Each treatment is followed by a rest period of a week or two to allow your body to recover from any side effects. The treatment and the rest period together make up a cycle of treatment. The number of cycles you have will depend on the drugs that are used, and how well the treatment is working. This is checked by your doctor at regular appointments.
Most people can have their chemotherapy as an outpatient.