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Pancreatic Cancer Treatment (PDQ®): Treatment - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer Treatment

Treatment Options for Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer

Treatment options for stage IV pancreatic cancer include the following:

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  1. Palliative therapy.
  2. Chemotherapy: gemcitabine; gemcitabine and erlotinib; or oxaliplatin, irinotecan, leucovorin, and fluorouracil (5-FU) (FOLFIRINOX).[1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10]

Palliative therapy

Palliative therapy for advanced pancreatic cancer includes the following:

  1. Pain-relieving procedures (e.g., celiac or intrapleural block) and supportive care.[11]
  2. Palliative surgical biliary bypass, percutaneous radiologic biliary stent placement, or endoscopically placed biliary stents.[12,13,14]


The low objective response rate and lack of survival benefit with current chemotherapy indicates that clinical trials are appropriate treatment of all newly diagnosed patients. Occasionally, patients have palliation of symptoms when treated with chemotherapy with well-tested older drugs, such as 5-FU. Gemcitabine has demonstrated activity in patients with pancreatic cancer and is a useful palliative agent.[1,15,16]

Evidence (chemotherapy):

  1. Gemcitabine versus 5-FU: A phase III trial of gemcitabine versus 5-FU as first-line therapy in patients with advanced or metastatic adenocarcinoma of the pancreas reported a significant improvement in survival among patients treated with gemcitabine (1-year survival was 18% with gemcitabine compared with 2% with 5-FU; P = .003).[15][Level of evidence: 1iiA]
  2. Gemcitabine alone versus gemcitabine and erlotinib: The National Cancer Institute of Canada performed a phase III trial (CAN-NCIC-PA3 [NCT00026338]) that compared gemcitabine alone versus the combination of gemcitabine and erlotinib (100 mg/day) in patients with advanced or metastatic pancreatic carcinomas.[17][Level of evidence: 1iiA]
    • The addition of erlotinib modestly prolonged survival when combined with gemcitabine alone (hazard ratio [HR] = 0.81; 95% confidence interval [CI]; P = .038).
    • The corresponding median survival rate for patients receiving erlotinib was 6.2 months, versus 5.9 months for patients receiving placebo. The 1-year survival rate for patients receiving erlotinib was 23%, versus 17% for patients receiving placebo.[17]
  3. Platinum analog or fluoropyrimidine versus single-agent gemcitabine: Many phase III studies have evaluated a combination regimen with either a platinum analog (cisplatin or oxaliplatin) or fluoropyrimidine versus single-agent gemcitabine.[18,19]
    • Not one of these phase III trials has demonstrated a statistically significant advantage favoring the use of combination chemotherapy in the first-line treatment of metastatic pancreatic cancer.
  4. FOLFIRINOX versus gemcitabine: A multicenter phase II/III trial included 342 patients with metastatic pancreatic adenocarcinoma with an Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group performance status score of 0 or 1.[20][Level of evidence: 1iiA] The patients were randomly assigned to receive FOLFIRINOX (oxaliplatin [85 mg/m2], irinotecan [180 mg/m2], leucovorin [400 mg/m2], and 5-FU [400 mg/m2] given as a bolus followed by 2,400 mg/m2 given as a 46-hour continuous infusion, every 2 weeks) or gemcitabine (1,000 mg/m2 weekly for 7 of 8 weeks and then weekly for 3 of 4 weeks).
    • The median overall survival (OS) was 11.1 months in the FOLFIRINOX group compared with 6.8 months in the gemcitabine group (HRdeath = 0.57; 95% CI, 0.45–0.73; P < .001).[20]
    • Median progression-free survival was 6.4 months in the FOLFIRINOX group and 3.3 months in the gemcitabine group (HR for disease progression = 0.47; 95% CI, 0.37–0.59; P < .001).
    • The objective response rate was 31.6% in the FOLFIRINOX group, versus 9.4% in the gemcitabine group (P < .001).
    • FOLFIRINOX was more toxic than gemcitabine; 5.4% of patients in this group had febrile neutropenia. At 6 months, 31% of the patients in the FOLFIRINOX group had a definitive degradation of quality of life, versus 66% in the gemcitabine group (HR = 0.47; 95% CI, 0.30–0.70; P < .001).
    • Based on this trial, FOLFIRINOX is considered a standard treatment option for patients with advanced pancreatic cancer.
  5. 5-FU, leucovorin, and oxaliplatin (OFF regimen) versus best supportive care (BSC): Second-line chemotherapy after progression on a gemcitabine-based regimen may be beneficial. The CONKO-003 investigators randomly assigned patients in the second line of chemotherapy to either an OFF regimen or BSC.[21]; [22][Level of evidence: 3iA] The OFF regimen consisted of leucovorin (200 mg/m2) followed by 5-FU (2,000 mg/m2[24 hours continuous infusion] on days 1, 8, 15, and 22) and oxaliplatin (85 mg/m2 on days 8 and 22). After a rest of 3 weeks, the next cycle was started on day 43. The trial was terminated early because of poor accrual, and only 46 patients were randomly assigned to either the OFF regimen or BSC.
    • Median survival on second-line chemotherapy was 4.82 months (95% CI, 4.29–5.35) for the OFF-regimen treatment and 2.30 months (95% CI, 1.76–2.83) with BSC alone (HR = 0.45; 95% CI, 0.24–0.83).[22]
    • Median OS was 9.09 months for the sequence of gemcitabine (GEM)-OFF and 7.90 months for GEM-BSC.
    • The early closure of the study and the very small number of patients made the P values misleading. Therefore, second-line chemotherapy with the OFF regimen may be erroneously associated with improved survival.
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