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Pancreatic Cancer Treatments by Stage


Treating Resectable Pancreatic Cancer continued...

Distal pancreatectomy: The tail and/or body of the pancreas are removed, but not the head. This surgery is uncommon for pancreatic cancer because most tumors arising outside the head of the pancreas within the body or tail are unresectable.

Total pancreatectomy: The entire pancreas is surgically removed. Although once considered useful, this operation is uncommon today.

Chemotherapy or radiation therapy or both can also be used in conjunction with surgery for resectable and unresectable pancreatic cancer in order to:

  • Shrink pancreatic cancer before surgery, improving the chances of resection (neoadjuvant therapy)
  • Prevent or delay pancreatic cancer from returning after surgery (adjuvant therapy)

Chemotherapy includes cancer drugs that travel through the whole body. Chemotherapy ("chemo") kills pancreatic cancer cells in the main tumor as well as those that have spread widely. Either of three chemotherapy drugs can be used for pancreatic cancer:

Both 5-FU and gemcitabine are given into the veins during regular visits to an oncologist (cancer doctor).  An oral drug, capecitabine, may be substituted for 5-FU, especially with radiation.

In radiation therapy, a machine beams high-energy X-rays to the pancreas to kill pancreatic cancer cells. Radiation therapy is done during a series of daily treatments, usually over a period of weeks.

Both radiation therapy and chemotherapy damage some normal cells, along with cancer cells. Side effects can include nausea, vomiting, appetite loss, weight loss, and fatigue as well as toxicity to the blood cells. Symptoms usually cease within a few weeks after radiation therapy is complete.

Treating Locally Advanced (Unresectable) Pancreatic Cancer

In locally advanced pancreatic cancer, surgery can't remove the entire tumor. Since surgery to remove only part of the pancreatic cancer has been shown not to help, nonsurgical therapies are best.

Treatment consists of chemotherapy with or without radiation therapy. Either 5-FU or gemcitabine can extend life in people with locally advanced pancreatic cancer.

Treating Metastatic Pancreatic Cancer

In metastatic pancreatic cancer, surgery is used only for symptom control, such as for pain, jaundice, or gastric outlet obstruction.. Radiation may be used for symptom relief as well.  

Gemcitabine is the single most active drug for treating metastatic pancreas cancer. Many studies have been performed to improve on the results of gemcitabine. The latest study,demonstrated that a 4 drug regimen, known as FOLFIRINOX (5-FU/leucovorin/oxaliplatin/irinotecan), is superior to gemcitabine. However due to toxicities, this therapy should be reserved for persons with good activity levels. Other combinations include gemcitabine with erlotinib, gemcitabine with capecitabine gemcitabine with cisplatin, gemcitabine with nab-paclitaxel. .

If an individual progresses on gemcitabine, usual regimens include oxaliplatin with 5-FU or capecitabine or cisplatin with 5-FU or capecitabine. However, efficacy of these regimens is limited.


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