Chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer

Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. It is one of the most common treatments for pancreatic cancer.

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. It is one of the most commonly used treatments for pancreatic cancer.

We have more general information about having chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy and surgery for pancreatic cancer

You may have chemotherapy after an operation to remove the cancer. This aims to reduce the chance of the cancer coming back. It is called adjuvant chemotherapy.

The chemotherapy will usually start within 3 months of the operation and will last about 6 months.

The most commonly used chemotherapy drugs are:

You may have these together (called GemCap) or separately. Another drug you may have is fluorouracil (5FU).

Sometimes chemotherapy is used to shrink a cancer before surgery (called neoadjuvant chemotherapy). If you have chemotherapy with radiotherapy before surgery, it is called neoadjuvant chemoradiation. This would usually be part of a cancer research trial. Your doctor or specialist nurse can give you more information.

Chemotherapy for advanced pancreatic cancer

When surgery is not possible you may have chemotherapy. The aim is usually to shrink the cancer, relieve symptoms and help you to live for longer. This is called palliative chemotherapy. You may have treatment with a single chemotherapy drug. Or you may have 2 or 3 combined.

Common treatments are:

You and your doctor can talk about the type of chemotherapy that is most suitable for you. For example, FOLFIRINOX is a combination of three drugs and can cause more side effects. 

Side effects of chemotherapy

Chemotherapy can cause side effects but it can also improve your symptoms and help you to feel better. 

If you are having a combination of drugs rather than a single drug you may have more side effects. Your doctor or nurse will explain the side effects you are most likely to have and how they can be controlled.

Side effects will usually improve after treatment finishes. We have more information about chemotherapy and its side effects

Chemotherapy and other drugs

Other drug combinations or new drugs may be used to treat pancreatic cancer. Sometimes, this will be as part of cancer research trials.

Cancer research trials are also looking at treatments called targeted therapies and immunotherapy. Targeted therapy drugs interfere with the way cancer cells grow. Immunotherapy tries to trigger the body’s immune system to attack cancer cells. The body’s immune system fights infection and disease.

Cancer research trials aim to improve the results of treatment for pancreatic cancer.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our pancreatic cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at

    British Society of Gastroenterology. Guidelines for the management of patients with pancreatic cancer peri-ampullary and ampullary carcinomas. 2005.

    European Society for Medial Oncology. Cancer of the pancreas: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. Annals of Oncology, 2015. 26 (Supplement 5): v56 to v68.

    Fernandez-del Castillo. Clinical manifestations, diagnosis, and staging of exocrine pancreatic cancer. UpToDate online. Jan 2018.

    Fernandez-del Castillo C, et al. Supportive care of the patient with locally advanced or metastatic exocrine pancreatic cancer. UpToDate online. Feb 2017. 

    Winter JM, et al. Cancer of the pancreas, DeVita Hellman and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (10th edition). Lippincott Williams and Wilkins. 2016.

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Chief Medical Editor, Professor Tim Iveson, Consultant Medical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.