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Pancreatic Cancer Treatments by Stage

The best treatment for pancreatic cancer depends on how far it has spread, or its stage. The stages of pancreatic cancer are easy to understand. What is difficult  is attempting to stage pancreatic cancer without resorting to major surgery. In practice, doctors choose pancreatic cancer treatments based upon imaging studies, surgical findings, and an individual’s general state of well being.

Stages of Pancreatic Cancer

Stage is a term used in cancer treatment to describe the extent of the cancer's spread. The stages of pancreatic cancer are used to guide treatment and to classify patients for clinical trials. The stages of pancreatic cancer are:

  • Stage 0: No spread. Pancreatic cancer is limited to a single layer of cells in the pancreas. The pancreatic cancer is not visible on imaging tests or even to the naked eye.
  • Stage I: Local growth. Pancreatic cancer is limited to the pancreas, but has grown to less than 2 centimeters across (stage IA) or greater than 2 centimeters (stage IB).
  • Stage II: Local spread. Pancreatic cancer has grown outside the pancreas, or has spread to nearby lymph nodes.
  • Stage III: Wider spread. The tumor has expanded into nearby major blood vessels or nerves but has not metastasized.
  • Stage IV: Confirmed spread. Pancreatic cancer has spread to distant organs.

Determining pancreatic cancer's stage is often tricky. Imaging tests like CT scans and ultrasound provide some information, but knowing exactly how far pancreatic cancer has spread usually requires surgery.

Since surgery has risks, doctors first determine whether pancreatic cancer appears to be removable by surgery (resectable). Pancreatic cancer is then described as follows:

  • Resectable: On imaging tests, pancreatic cancer hasn't spread (or at least not far), and a surgeon feels it might all be removable. About 10% of pancreatic cancers are considered resectable when first diagnosed.
  • Locally advanced (unresectable): Pancreatic cancer has grown into major blood vessels on imaging tests, so the tumor can't safely be removed by surgery.
  • Metastatic: Pancreatic cancer has clearly spread to other organs, so surgery cannot remove the cancer.

If pancreatic cancer is resectable, surgery followed by chemotherapy or radiation or both may extend survival.

Treating Resectable Pancreatic Cancer

People whose pancreatic cancer is considered resectable may undergo one of three surgeries:

Whipple procedure (pancreaticoduodenectomy): A surgeon removes the head of the pancreas, parts of the stomach and small intestine, some lymph nodes, the gallbladder, and the common bile duct. The remaining organs are reconnected in a new way to allow digestion. The Whipple procedure is a difficult and complicated surgery. Surgeons and hospitals that do the most operations have the best results.

About half the time, once a surgeon sees inside the abdomen, pancreatic cancer that was thought to be resectable turns out to have spread, and thus be unresectable. The Whipple procedure is not completed in these cases.

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