Treating pancreatic cancer

Treatment for pancreatic cancer depends on:

For many people their main treatment is chemotherapy to control the cancer and to relieve symptoms. There are also other treatments and things that can be done to control symptoms and help you to feel better.

Your doctor may explain your treatment based on whether surgery:

  • can remove the cancer (resectable)
  • cannot remove the cancer (unresectable).

This will depend on the stage of the cancer and also on your general health.

Treating resectable early stage cancer

If the cancer is small and has not spread (early stage) surgery is the most effective treatment. They remove part or all of the pancreas. This is called resectable cancer.

For some people it may cure the cancer. But it is a major operation. It is only suitable for a small number of people who are fit enough. You may have chemotherapy after surgery or sometimes before surgery to shrink the tumour. It may be given as part of a cancer research trial.

Treating borderline resectable, locally advanced cancer

Borderline resectable is when it may be possible to remove a cancer that has spread to nearby blood vessels (locally advanced). Because it’s in blood vessels it makes it difficult for the surgeon to remove the whole cancer and an area of healthy tissue around it (a clear margin). If it is not possible to get a clear margin, the risk of the cancer coming back is high. Only a small number of people can have surgery in this situation.

You may have chemotherapy first to shrink the tumour. The surgeon then decides if an operation is possible. If it is not, you will continue to have treatment with chemotherapy.

Treating unresectable, locally advanced cancer

This is when surgery to remove a locally advanced cancer is not possible because of how much the cancer has spread nearby. Chemotherapy is usually the main treatment. But some people may have chemotherapy and radiotherapy together. This is called chemoradiation.

If the cancer is causing a blockage in the bile duct or the bowel, surgery is sometimes used to relieve symptoms.

Treating advanced (metastatic) cancer

Surgery is not possible when the cancer has spread to other parts of the body such as the liver or lungs (metastatic). You may have chemotherapy to shrink the cancer and relieve symptoms. Chemotherapy may help some people live for longer.

You may need treatments to relieve jaundice or other symptoms caused by a blocked bile duct or bowel. There are different drugs and treatments that can be used to control any pain or other symptoms. This is called supportive care.

You can read more about this in our information about controlling the symptoms of pancreatic cancer.

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