Article: Pancreatic Cancer Treatment

General Information About Pancreatic 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 behind the stomach and in front of the spine.

The pancreas has two main jobs in the body:

  • To produce juices that help digest (break down) food.
  • To produce hormones, such as insulin and glucagon, that help control blood sugar levels. Both of these hormones help the body use and store the energy it gets from food.

The digestive juices are produced by exocrine pancreas cells and the hormones are produced by endocrine pancreas cells. About 95% of pancreatic cancers begin in exocrine cells.

This summary provides information on exocrine pancreatic cancer. Refer to the PDQ summary on Islet Cell Carcinoma (Endocrine Pancreas) Treatment for information on endocrine pancreatic cancer.

Smoking and health history can affect the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

The following are possible risk factors for pancreatic cancer:

  • Smoking.
  • Long-standing diabetes.
  • Chronic pancreatitis.
  • Certain hereditary conditions, such as hereditary pancreatitis, multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 syndrome, hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC; Lynch syndrome), von Hippel-Lindau syndrome, ataxia-telangiectasia, and the familial atypical multiple mole melanoma syndrome (FAMMM).

Possible signs of pancreatic cancer include jaundice, pain, and weight loss.

These symptoms can be caused by pancreatic cancer or other conditions. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes).
  • Pain in the upper or middle abdomen and back.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Fatigue.

Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect (find) and diagnose early.

Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect and diagnose for the following reasons:

  • There aren't any noticeable signs or symptoms in the early stages of pancreatic cancer.
  • The signs of pancreatic cancer, when present, are like the signs of many other illnesses.
  • The pancreas is hidden behind other organs such as the stomach, small intestine, liver, gallbladder, spleen, and bile ducts.

Tests that examine the pancreas are used to detect (find), diagnose, and stage pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer is usually diagnosed with tests and procedures that produce 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:

  • Chest x-ray: An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.


  • Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient's health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.


  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography. A spiral or helical CT scan makes a series of very detailed pictures of areas inside the body using an x-ray machine that scans the body in a spiral path.


  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).


  • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): A procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radionuclide glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the body. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells.


  • Endoscopic ultrasound (EUS): A procedure in which an endoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is inserted into the body. The endoscope is used to bounce high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram. This procedure is also called endosonography.


  • Laparoscopy: A surgical procedure to look at the organs inside the abdomen to check for signs of disease. Small incisions (cuts) are made in the wall of the abdomen and a laparoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is inserted into one of the incisions. Other instruments may be inserted through the same or other incisions to perform procedures such as removing organs or taking tissue samples for biopsy.


  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP): A procedure used to x-ray the ducts (tubes) that carry bile from the liver to the gallbladder and from the gallbladder to the small intestine. Sometimes pancreatic cancer causes these ducts to narrow and block or slow the flow of bile, causing jaundice. An endoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is passed through the mouth, esophagus, and stomach into the first part of the small intestine. A catheter (a smaller tube) is then inserted through the endoscope into the pancreatic ducts. A dye is injected through the catheter into the ducts and an x-ray is taken. If the ducts are blocked by a tumor, a fine tube may be inserted into the duct to unblock it. This tube (or stent) may be left in place to keep the duct open. Tissue samples may also be taken.


  • Percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography (PTC): A procedure used to x-ray the liver and bile ducts. A thin needle is inserted through the skin below the ribs and into the liver. Dye is injected into the liver or bile ducts and an x-ray is taken. If a blockage is found, a thin, flexible tube called a stent is sometimes left in the liver to drain bile into the small intestine or a collection bag outside the body. This test is done only if ERCP cannot be done.


  • Biopsy: The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope to check for signs of cancer. There are several ways to do a biopsy for pancreatic cancer. A fine needle may be inserted into the pancreas during an x-ray or ultrasound to remove cells. Tissue may also be removed during a laparoscopy (a surgical incision made in the wall of the abdomen).


Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • Whether or not the tumor can be removed by surgery.
  • The stage of the cancer (the size of the tumor and whether the cancer has spread outside the pancreas to nearby tissues or lymph nodes or to other places in the body).
  • The patient's general health.
  • Whether the cancer has just been diagnosed or has recurred (come back).

Pancreatic cancer can be controlled only if it is found before it has spread, when it can be 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.

Taking part in one of the clinical trials being done to improve treatment should be considered. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Cancer.gov Web site.

Stages of Pancreatic Cancer

Tests and procedures to stage pancreatic cancer are usually done at the same time as diagnosis.

The following stages are used for pancreatic cancer:

Stage I

In stage I, cancer is found in the pancreas only. Stage I is divided into stage IA and stage IB, based on the size of the tumor.

  • Stage IA: The tumor is 2 centimeters or smaller.
  • Stage IB: The tumor is larger than 2 centimeters.

Stage II

In stage II, cancer may have spread to nearby tissue and organs, and may have spread to lymph nodes near the pancreas. Stage II is divided into stage IIA and stage IIB, based on where the cancer has spread.

  • Stage IIA: Cancer has spread to nearby tissue and organs but has not spread to nearby lymph nodes.
  • Stage IIB: Cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes and may have spread to nearby tissue and organs.

Stage III

In stage III, cancer has spread to the major blood vessels near the pancreas and may have spread to nearby lymph nodes.

Stage IV

In stage IV, cancer may be of any size and has spread to distant organs, such as the liver, lung, and peritoneal cavity. It may have also spread to organs and tissues near the pancreas or to lymph nodes.

Recurrent Pancreatic Cancer

Recurrent pancreatic cancer is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back in the pancreas or in other parts of the body.

Treatment Option Overview

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. Before starting treatment, patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. 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.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Cancer.gov Web site. Choosing the most appropriate cancer treatment is a decision that ideally involves the patient, family, and health care team.

Three types of standard treatment are used:

Surgery

One of the following types of surgery may be used to take out the tumor:

  • Whipple procedure: A surgical procedure in which the head of the pancreas, the gallbladder, part of the stomach, part of the small intestine, and the bile duct are removed. Enough of the pancreas is left to produce digestive juices and insulin.
  • Total pancreatectomy: This operation removes the whole pancreas, part of the stomach, part of the small intestine, the common bile duct, the gallbladder, the spleen, and nearby lymph nodes.
  • Distal pancreatectomy: The body and the tail of the pancreas and usually the spleen are removed.

If the cancer has spread and cannot be removed, the following types of palliative surgery may be done to relieve symptoms:

  • Surgical biliary bypass: If cancer is blocking the small intestine and bile is building up in the gallbladder, a biliary bypass may be done. During this operation, the doctor will cut the gallbladder or bile duct and sew it to the small intestine to create a new pathway around the blocked area.
  • Endoscopic stent placement: If the tumor is blocking the bile duct, surgery may be done to put in a stent (a thin tube) to drain bile that has built up in the area. The doctor may place the stent through a catheter that drains to the outside of the body or the stent may go around the blocked area and drain the bile into the small intestine.
  • Gastric bypass: If the tumor is blocking the flow of food from the stomach, the stomach may be sewn directly to the small intestine so the patient can continue to eat normally.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping the cells 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). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the spinal column, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Other types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials. These include the following:

Biologic therapy

Biologic therapy is a treatment that uses the patient's immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body's natural defenses against cancer. This type of cancer treatment is also called biotherapy or immunotherapy.

This summary section refers to specific treatments under study in clinical trials, but it may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Cancer.gov Web site.

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.

Patients with pancreatic cancer have special nutritional needs.

Surgery to remove the pancreas may interfere with the production of 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.

Treatment Options by Stage

Stage I Pancreatic Cancer

Treatment of stage I pancreatic cancer may include the following:

  • Surgery alone.
  • Surgery with chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
  • A clinical trial of surgery followed by radiation therapy with chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is given before, during, and after the radiation therapy.
  • A clinical trial of surgery followed by chemotherapy.
  • A clinical trial of surgery followed by biologic therapy with chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.

This summary section refers to specific treatments under study in clinical trials, but it may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Cancer.gov Web site.

Stage IIA Pancreatic Cancer

Treatment of stage IIA pancreatic cancer may include the following:

  • Surgery with or without chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
  • Radiation therapy with chemotherapy.
  • Palliative surgery to bypass blocked areas in ducts or the small intestine.
  • A clinical trial of surgery followed by radiation therapy with chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is given before, during, and after the radiation therapy.
  • A clinical trial of surgery followed by chemotherapy.
  • A clinical trial of surgery followed by biologic therapy with radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy.
  • A clinical trial of radiation therapy combined with chemotherapy and/or radiosensitizers (drugs that make cancer cells more sensitive to radiation so more tumor cells are killed), followed by surgery.
  • A clinical trial of radiation therapy given during surgery or internal radiation therapy.

This summary section refers to specific treatments under study in clinical trials, but it may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Cancer.gov Web site.

Stage IIB Pancreatic Cancer

Treatment of stage IIB pancreatic cancer may include the following:

  • Surgery with or without chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
  • Radiation therapy with chemotherapy.
  • Palliative surgery to bypass blocked areas in ducts or the small intestine.
  • A clinical trial of surgery followed by radiation therapy with chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is given before, during, and after the radiation therapy.
  • A clinical trial of surgery followed by chemotherapy.
  • A clinical trial of surgery followed by biologic therapy with radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy.
  • A clinical trial of radiation therapy combined with chemotherapy and/or radiosensitizers, followed by surgery.
  • A clinical trial of radiation therapy given during surgery or internal radiation therapy.

Stage III Pancreatic Cancer

Treatment of stage III pancreatic cancer may include the following:

  • Surgery with or without chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
  • Radiation therapy with chemotherapy.
  • Palliative surgery or stent placement to bypass blocked areas in ducts or the small intestine.
  • A clinical trial of surgery followed by radiation therapy with chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is given before, during, and after the radiation therapy.
  • A clinical trial of surgery followed by chemotherapy.
  • A clinical trial of surgery followed by biologic therapy with radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy.
  • A clinical trial of radiation therapy combined with chemotherapy and/or radiosensitizers, which may be followed by surgery.
  • A clinical trial of radiation therapy given during surgery or internal radiation therapy.

This summary section refers to specific treatments under study in clinical trials, but it may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Cancer.gov Web site.

Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer

Treatment of stage IV pancreatic cancer may include the following:

  • Chemotherapy.
  • Palliative treatments for pain, such as nerve blocks, and other supportive care.
  • Palliative surgery or stent placement to bypass blocked areas in ducts or the small intestine.
  • Clinical trials of chemotherapy or biologic therapy.

This summary section refers to specific treatments under study in clinical trials, but it may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Cancer.gov Web site.

Treatment Options for Recurrent Pancreatic Cancer

Treatment of recurrent pancreatic cancer may include the following:

  • Chemotherapy.
  • Palliative surgery or stent placement to bypass blocked areas in ducts or the small intestine.
  • Palliative radiation therapy.
  • Other palliative medical care to reduce symptoms, such as nerve blocks to relieve pain.
  • Clinical trials of chemotherapy or biologic therapy.

This summary section refers to specific treatments under study in clinical trials, but it may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Cancer.gov Web site.

Changes to This Summary (06/22/2004)

The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.

Changes were made to this summary to match those made to the health professional version.

To Learn More

Call

For more information, U.S. residents may call the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Deaf and hard-of-hearing callers with TTY equipment may call 1-800-332-8615. The call is free and a trained Cancer Information Specialist is available to answer your questions.

Web sites and Organizations

The NCI's Cancer.gov Web site provides online access to information on cancer, clinical trials, and other Web sites and organizations that offer support and resources for cancer patients and their families. There are also many other places where people can get materials and information about cancer treatment and services. Local hospitals may have information on local and regional agencies that offer information about finances, getting to and from treatment, receiving care at home, and dealing with problems associated with cancer treatment.

Publications

The NCI has booklets and other materials for patients, health professionals, and the public. These publications discuss types of cancer, methods of cancer treatment, coping with cancer, and clinical trials. Some publications provide information on tests for cancer, cancer causes and prevention, cancer statistics, and NCI research activities. NCI materials on these and other topics may be ordered online or printed directly from the NCI Publications Locator. These materials can also be ordered by telephone from the Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237), TTY at 1-800-332-8615.

LiveHelp

The NCI's LiveHelp service, a program available on several of the Institute's Web sites, provides Internet users with the ability to chat online with an Information Specialist. The service is available from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday. Information Specialists can help Internet users find information on NCI Web sites and answer questions about cancer.

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6116 Executive Boulevard, MSC8322
Bethesda, MD 20892-8322

About PDQ

PDQ is a comprehensive cancer database available on Cancer.gov.

PDQ is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. Most of the information contained in PDQ is available online at Cancer.gov, the NCI's Web site. PDQ is provided as a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health, the federal government's focal point for biomedical research.

PDQ contains cancer information summaries.

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 are available in two versions. The health professional versions provide detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions provide current and accurate cancer information.

The PDQ cancer information summaries are developed by cancer experts and reviewed regularly.

Editorial Boards made up of experts in oncology and related specialties are responsible for writing and maintaining the cancer information summaries. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made as new information becomes available. The date on each summary ("Date Last Modified") indicates the time of the most recent change.

PDQ also contains information on clinical trials.

Before starting treatment, patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. 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 new treatments, the risks involved, and how well they do or do not work. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard."

Listings of clinical trials are included in PDQ and are available online at Cancer.gov. Descriptions of the trials are available in health professional and patient versions. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237); TTY at 1-800-332-8615.


Source: National Cancer Institute
Cache Date: December 10, 2004