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Home > Living Well > Health Library > Pancreatic Cancer Treatment (Adult) (PDQ®): Treatment - Patient Information [NCI]
This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.
Pancreatic cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the pancreas.
The pancreas is a gland about 6 inches long that is shaped like a thin pear lying on its side. The wider end of the pancreas is called the head, the middle section is called the body, and the narrow end is called the tail. The pancreas lies between the stomach and the spine.Anatomy of the pancreas. The pancreas has three areas: head, body, and tail. It is found in the abdomen near the stomach, intestines, and other organs.
The pancreas has two main jobs in the body:
The digestive juices are made by exocrine pancreas cells and the hormones are made by endocrine pancreas cells. About 95% of pancreatic cancers begin in exocrine cells.
This summary is about exocrine pancreatic cancer. For information on endocrine pancreatic cancer, see the PDQ summary on Pancreatic Neuroendocrine Tumors (Islet Cell Tumors) Treatment.
For information on pancreatic cancer in children, see the PDQ summary on Childhood Pancreatic Cancer Treatment.
Smoking and health history can affect the risk of pancreatic cancer.
Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk.
Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include the following:
Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer include jaundice, pain, and weight loss.
Pancreatic cancer may not cause early signs or symptoms. Signs and symptoms may be caused by pancreatic cancer or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:
Pancreatic cancer is difficult to diagnose early.
Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect and diagnose for the following reasons:
Tests that examine the pancreas are used to diagnose and stage pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic cancer is usually diagnosed with tests and procedures that make pictures of the pancreas and the area around it. The process used to find out if cancer cells have spread within and around the pancreas is called staging. Tests and procedures to detect, diagnose, and stage pancreatic cancer are usually done at the same time. In order to plan treatment, it is important to know the stage of the disease and whether or not the pancreatic cancer can be removed by surgery.
The following tests and procedures may be used:
Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.
The prognosis and treatment options depend on the following:
Pancreatic cancer can be controlled only if it is found before it has spread, when it can be completely removed by surgery. If the cancer has spread, palliative treatment can improve the patient's quality of life by controlling the symptoms and complications of this disease.
Tests and procedures to stage pancreatic cancer are usually done at the same time as diagnosis.
The process used to find out if cancer has spread within the pancreas or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage of the disease in order to plan treatment. The results of some of the tests used to diagnose pancreatic cancer are often also used to stage the disease. See the General Information section for more information.
There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.
Cancer can spread through tissue, the lymph system, and the blood:
Cancer may spread from where it began to other parts of the body.
When cancer spreads to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. Cancer cells break away from where they began (the primary tumor) and travel through the lymph system or blood.
The metastatic tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if pancreatic cancer spreads to the liver, the cancer cells in the liver are actually pancreatic cancer cells. The disease is metastatic pancreatic cancer, not liver cancer.
The following stages are used for pancreatic cancer:
Stage 0 (Carcinoma in Situ)
Stage 0 pancreatic cancer. Abnormal cells are found in the lining of the pancreas. These abnormal cells may become cancer and spread into nearby normal tissue.
In stage 0, abnormal cells are found in the lining of the pancreas. These abnormal cells may become cancer and spread into nearby normal tissue. Stage 0 is also called carcinoma in situ.
Stage I pancreatic cancer. Cancer is found in the pancreas only. In stage IA, the tumor is 2 centimeters or smaller. In stage IB, the tumor is larger than 2 centimeters but not larger than 4 centimeters.
In stage I, cancer has formed and is found in the pancreas only. Stage I is divided into stages IA and IB, depending on the size of the tumor.
Stage II is divided into stages IIA and IIB, depending on the size of the tumor and where the cancer has spread.
Stage III pancreatic cancer. The tumor is any size and cancer has spread to (a) 4 or more nearby lymph nodes; or (b) the major blood vessels near the pancreas. These include the portal vein, common hepatic artery, celiac axis (trunk), and superior mesenteric artery.
In stage III, the tumor is any size and cancer has spread to:
Stage IV pancreatic cancer. The tumor is any size and cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the lung, liver, or peritoneal cavity (the body cavity that contains most of the organs in the abdomen).
In stage IV, the tumor is any size and cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the liver, lung, or peritoneal cavity (the body cavity that contains most of the organs in the abdomen).
The following groups are used to plan treatment:
Resectable pancreatic cancer
Resectable pancreatic cancer can be removed by surgery because it has not grown into important blood vessels near the tumor.
Borderline resectable pancreatic cancer
Borderline resectable pancreatic cancer has grown into a major blood vessel or nearby tissue or organs. It may be possible to remove the tumor, but there is a high risk that all of the cancer cells will not be removed with surgery.
Locally advanced pancreatic cancer
Locally advanced pancreatic cancer has grown into or close to nearby lymph nodes or blood vessels, so surgery cannot completely remove the cancer.
Metastatic pancreatic cancer
Metastatic pancreatic cancer has spread to other organs, so surgery cannot completely remove the cancer.
Recurrent pancreatic cancer
Recurrent pancreatic cancer has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back in the pancreas or in other parts of the body.
There are different types of treatment for patients with pancreatic cancer.
Different types of treatment are available for patients with pancreatic cancer. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Five types of standard treatment are used:
One of the following types of surgery may be used to take out the tumor:
If the cancer has spread and cannot be removed, the following types of palliative surgery may be done to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life:
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the area of the body with cancer.
Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). Combination chemotherapy is treatment using more than one anticancer drug.
See Drugs Approved for Pancreatic Cancer for more information.
Chemoradiation therapy combines chemotherapy and radiation therapy to increase the effects of both.
Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells. Targeted therapies usually cause less harm to normal cells than chemotherapy or radiation therapy do. Tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) are targeted therapy drugs that block signals needed for tumors to grow. Erlotinib is a type of TKI used to treat pancreatic cancer.
There are treatments for pain caused by pancreatic cancer.
Pain can occur when the tumor presses on nerves or other organs near the pancreas. When pain medicine is not enough, there are treatments that act on nerves in the abdomen to relieve the pain. The doctor may inject medicine into the area around affected nerves or may cut the nerves to block the feeling of pain. Radiation therapy with or without chemotherapy can also help relieve pain by shrinking the tumor. See the PDQ summary on Cancer Pain for more information.
Patients with pancreatic cancer have special nutritional needs.
Surgery to remove the pancreas may affect its ability to make pancreatic enzymes that help to digest food. As a result, patients may have problems digesting food and absorbing nutrients into the body. To prevent malnutrition, the doctor may prescribe medicines that replace these enzymes.
New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.
This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
Treatment for pancreatic cancer may cause side effects.
For information about side effects caused by treatment for cancer, see our Side Effects page.
Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.
For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.
Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.
Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.
Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.
Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.
Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about clinical trials supported by NCI can be found on NCI's clinical trials search webpage. Clinical trials supported by other organizations can be found on the ClinicalTrials.gov website.
Follow-up tests may be needed.
Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.
Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.
For information about the treatments listed below, see the Treatment Option Overview section.
Treatment of resectable or borderline resectable pancreatic cancer may include the following:
Surgery to remove the tumor may include Whipple procedure, total pancreatectomy, or distal pancreatectomy.
Palliative therapy can be started at any stage of disease. See the Palliative Therapy section for information about treatments that may improve quality of life or relieve symptoms in patients with pancreatic cancer.
Use our clinical trial search to find NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are accepting patients. You can search for trials based on the type of cancer, the age of the patient, and where the trials are being done. General information about clinical trials is also available.
Treatment of pancreatic cancer that is locally advanced may include the following:
Treatment of pancreatic cancer that has metastasized or recurred may include the following:
Palliative therapy can improve the patient's quality of life by controlling the symptoms and complications of pancreatic cancer.
Palliative therapy for pancreatic cancer includes the following:
For more information from the National Cancer Institute about pancreatic cancer, see the following:
For general cancer information and other resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:
Physician Data Query (PDQ) is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries come in two versions. The health professional versions have detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions have cancer information that is accurate and up to date and most versions are also available in Spanish.
PDQ is a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH is the federal government's center of biomedical research. The PDQ summaries are based on an independent review of the medical literature. They are not policy statements of the NCI or the NIH.
Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about the treatment of adult pancreatic cancer. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.
Reviewers and Updates
Editorial Boards write the PDQ cancer information summaries and keep them up to date. These Boards are made up of experts in cancer treatment and other specialties related to cancer. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made when there is new information. The date on each summary ("Updated") is the date of the most recent change.
The information in this patient summary was taken from the health professional version, which is reviewed regularly and updated as needed, by the PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board.
Clinical Trial Information
A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Clinical trials can be found online at NCI's website. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service (CIS), NCI's contact center, at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
Permission to Use This Summary
PDQ is a registered trademark. The content of PDQ documents can be used freely as text. It cannot be identified as an NCI PDQ cancer information summary unless the whole summary is shown and it is updated regularly. However, a user would be allowed to write a sentence such as "NCI's PDQ cancer information summary about breast cancer prevention states the risks in the following way: [include excerpt from the summary]."
The best way to cite this PDQ summary is:
PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. PDQ Pancreatic Cancer Treatment (Adult). Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/pancreatic/patient/pancreatic-treatment-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389396]
Images in this summary are used with permission of the author(s), artist, and/or publisher for use in the PDQ summaries only. If you want to use an image from a PDQ summary and you are not using the whole summary, you must get permission from the owner. It cannot be given by the National Cancer Institute. Information about using the images in this summary, along with many other images related to cancer can be found in Visuals Online. Visuals Online is a collection of more than 3,000 scientific images.
The information in these summaries should not be used to make decisions about insurance reimbursement. More information on insurance coverage is available on Cancer.gov on the Managing Cancer Care page.
More information about contacting us or receiving help with the Cancer.gov website can be found on our Contact Us for Help page. Questions can also be submitted to Cancer.gov through the website's E-mail Us.
Last Revised: 2020-12-11
If you want to know more about cancer and how it is treated, or if you wish to know about clinical trials for your type of cancer, you can call the NCI's Cancer Information Service at 1-800-422-6237, toll free. A trained information specialist can talk with you and answer your questions.
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