Pancreatic cancer can only be cured when it is found in early stages, before it has spread. In later stages, pancreatic cancer can be difficult to control with current treatments. For these patients, treatments may help patients live longer and alleviate symptoms.
Many doctors encourage patients with later stages of pancreatic cancer to take part in clinical trials. They also encourage palliative therapy, which aims to improve the patient’s quality of life by controlling pain and other symptoms of the disease. Patients should talk through all of their options with their doctors and develop a treatment plan that best fits their needs.
Treatment options depend on the type and stage of cancer, and include one or more of the following:
A surgeon removes all or part of the pancreas. The extent of surgery depends on the location and size of the tumor, the stage of the disease, and the patient's general health. Sometimes the cancer can’t be completely removed but the surgeon can create a bypass that allows fluids to flow to the digestive tract.
Types of surgery for pancreatic cancer patients include:
- When the tumor is in the widest part of the pancreas, called the head, the surgeon removes the head of the pancreas, part of the small intestine, bile duct, stomach, and other nearby tissues.
- If the tumor is in the body or tail of the pancreas, the surgeon removes the part it is in along with the spleen.
- The surgeon removes the entire pancreas, part of the small intestine, part of the stomach, the common bile duct, gallbladder, spleen and nearby lymph nodes.
Some patients are fed through an IV after surgery and through feeding tubes placed in the abdomen, and slowly return to solid foods by mouth.
A large machine directs radiation at the abdomen and uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. Radiation can be given alone or with chemotherapy, surgery, or both. It is used to destroy cancer cells that remain after surgery and to relieve pain caused by cancer.
This treatment uses drugs to kill cancer cells. In patients with pancreatic cancer, chemotherapy is given alone, with surgery, radiation, or both. Most often, drugs are injected into the veins.
Follow-up care after treatment for pancreatic cancer is an important part of the overall treatment plan. Regular checkups ensure that any changes in health are noticed, and may include physical exams, laboratory tests, and imaging procedures.