Treatment for pancreatic cancer

Main treatments for pancreatic cancer

The treatments for cancer of the pancreas include:

  • Surgery.
  • Chemotherapy.
  • Biological therapy.
  • Radiotherapy.

Surgery

Surgery is the main treatment for pancreatic cancer. But surgery to remove and cure the cancer is only possible if the cancer is at an early stage. It may be possible to remove all or part of the pancreas, depending on where the tumour is found. This surgery is normally done in a surgical centre staffed by specialists.
If the cancer is causing a blockage and is too advanced to remove, an operation to bypass the tumour is often done. Or a tube called a stent can be placed in your bile duct if the cancer is causing a blockage. This can relieve your symptoms and improve your quality of life. For more information on surgery, please see our Understanding Cancer of the Pancreas booklet or speak to a specialist nurse on the Cancer Nurseline 1800 200 700.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill or control cancer cells. It can be used before surgery (neo-adjuvant therapy) or after surgery (adjuvant therapy). Chemotherapy can also be given to shrink the tumour and relieve your symptoms.

Some common drugs used for pancreatic cancer are:

  • Gemcitabine (Gemzar)
  • 5-Fluorouracil (5-FU)
  • Capecitabine (Xeloda)
  • Oxaliplatin
  • Cisplatin

Please see our booklet Understanding Chemotherapy, which you can download from our "Important cancer information booklets" list on the right hand side of this page, for more information on chemotherapy, or learn more about chemotherapy here.

Biological therapies

Biological therapies use the body's immune system to treat cancer. They are also known as targeted therapies. Erlotinib (Tarceva) is one example of a biological therapy. The drugs listed above may be used on their own or in combination.

Learn more about biological therapy.

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to kill or control cancer cells. Your doctor may give you radiotherapy before surgery to try to shrink the tumour or after surgery to help stop the cancer coming back. With advanced cancer, radiotherapy can also help to control pain or bleeding. Please see our Understanding Radiotherapy booklet, which you can download from our "Important cancer information booklets" list on the right hand side of this page, for more about radiotherapy, or learn more about radiotherapy here.

Advanced treatment

Advanced cancer is when the cancer has spread to other parts of your body. This can include your liver or lungs. It may be possible to keep the cancer under control by surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy. But it is unlikely the cancer will be cured. Treatment can also help to improve symptoms like pain, bleeding, jaundice and vomiting. This is called palliative treatment.

Learn more about treatments.

Side effects

The type of side-effects you get will depend on the type of treatment, the dose, the duration and your general health. Some treatments may cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea or loss of appetite. Radiotherapy may cause hair loss or skin redness in the treated area only. Most treatments can cause fatigue. Your doctor will discuss any likely side-effects before treatment.

For more about coping with side-effects, see the booklet Understanding Cancer of the Pancreas or download the booklets Understanding ChemotherapyUnderstanding RadiotherapyCoping with FatigueDiet and Cancer and Understanding the Emotional Effects of Cancer, all available under the "Important cancer information booklets" list on the right hand side of this page.

Learn more about side effects.

Clinical trials

If a treatment looks like it might be helpful, it is given to patients in research studies called clinical trials. Trials may be taking place at the hospital you are attending. If you are interested in taking part, talk to your doctor. He or she can tell you if the trial would suit you or not. One research study in Ireland is called the PanCam study.

Learn more about clinical trials.

Pancreatic cancer support

Date Last Reviewed: 
Wednesday, November 15, 2017