Pancreatic cancer is an aggressive disease with a poor prognosis, even when doctors detect it early. Unfortunately, early detection is rare for this cancer. Few symptoms occur until the cancer is advanced and surgical removal of the pancreas is not an option.
Pancreatic cancer is hard to diagnose and hard to treat, which makes it a leading cause of cancer death. Treatment depends on many factors including the cancer stage, where the cancer occurs in the body, the patient’s age and his or her overall health.
Surgery is common when cancer is confined to the pancreas. Surgeons use one of three procedures to remove a tumor. The Whipple procedure removes the head of the pancreas as well as the bile duct, gallbladder and parts of the stomach and small intestine. Enough of the pancreas remains to produce insulin and digestive juices.
Surgeons use distal pancreatectomy to remove the body and tail of the pancreas. In most cases, they also remove the spleen. A total pancreatectomy removes the pancreas, spleen, gallbladder, parts of the stomach and small intestine as well as the nearby lymph nodes.
Surgery can remove the pancreas in part or whole, but it cannot provide a replacement organ for people with pancreatic cancer. Transplants are not an option because the cancer has likely spread to other organs by the time it is detected and diagnosed.
Radiation therapy is a non-surgical option for pancreatic cancer. It uses x-rays or other high-energy beams to destroy cancer cells or prevent their spread. Patients can receive radiation treatment before or after surgery to remove a tumor.
There are two types of radiation treatments: internal radiation therapy and external radiation therapy. The way radiation is used to treat pancreatic cancer depends on the cancer stage. Some patients receive radiation in conjunction with chemotherapy. This treatment is called chemoradiation.
Chemotherapy is a common treatment for pancreatic cancer. It uses drugs to kill cancer cells in the pancreas and nearby organs, or to stop the cells from growing. Patients can take the drugs orally or intravenously — at a hospital or at home.
Combination chemotherapy uses more than one anti-cancer drug for treatment. Targeted therapy uses powerful drugs to attack abnormalities within cancer cells without destroying normal cells. It is usually combined with chemotherapy for people with advanced cancer.
Biologic therapy is a new type of treatment that doctors are studying in clinical trials. It uses the patient’s immune system to fight cancer cells. Also called biotherapy or immunotherapy, it uses natural or synthetic substances to restore or direct the body’s natural defenses against disease.
Alternative medicine cannot treat pancreatic cancer, but it can ease the symptoms for some patients. Many cancer treatment centers integrate medical treatment with alternative therapies. Physical exercises, relaxation exercises, art therapy, music therapy, meditation and spirituality are examples of complementary and alternative therapies.