Pancreatic Cancer Treatment

  • Treatment

    If you are receiving certain chemotherapy drugs or biological therapy for pancreatic cancer, you may be hospitalized for a short time. Depending on the drug and the patient's general health, a short hospital stay may be needed at the beginning of therapy.

    Get plenty of rest. People undergoing chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy often experience side effects that may be lessened by getting plenty of rest.

    Join a cancer support group. A cancer support group may help you cope with the disease. Groups may provide emotional, rehabilitative, financial, or other support.

    Your doctor is the best source of information on the drug treatment choices available to you.

    You may receive radiation therapy. Radiation therapy may be used after surgical removal of the pancreatic tumor for patients for whom surgery is not an option, and to control pain.

    Patients receiving radiation therapy are exposed to high-energy rays that damage cancer cells and stop them from growing and multiplying in the affected areas of the body. Radiation therapy is often given in combination with chemotherapy in an effort to try and shrink the tumor or retard tumor growth. Data from one study indicate that a combination of 5-fluorouracil and radiation therapy increased survival in one group from 5 months to 10 months. Doctors may send patients for radiation therapy before surgery in order to shrink the tumor. Shrinking the tumor may allow surgeons to remove it more easily.

    Ask your doctor about available clinical trials that the National Cancer Institute considers a “standard of care” for patients.

    In select cases, the tumor may be removed surgically from the pancreas and surrounding tissue. If tumors are detected early enough, surgical removal may offer a cure. Unfortunately, fewer than 15% of all tumors are recommended for removal.

    Tumors suitable for surgical removal are usually less than 4 cm in diameter, are confined to the pancreas, and have not spread to surrounding tissues. During the surgery, part or all of the pancreas may be removed, depending on the extent of the tumor cell invasion. Surgical removal of the tumor does not ensure survival. Patients who undergo this type of surgery may need to take pancreatic enzyme supplements to prevent digestive complications. Many patients are offered chemotherapy and radiation after surgery.

    In certain cases, the doctor may recommend surgically implanting a flexible tube (stent) to maintain bile flow into the intestine. Some people are unable to have the pancreatic cancer removed. As a result, bile ducts become blocked, and the patient develops a yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice). Jaundice can lead to complications such as severe itching, poor appetite, diarrhea, weight loss, and fever. To alleviate it, a stent may be placed in the bile duct of the pancreas to bypass the tumor and allow the bile to flow into the intestine. The stent may be plastic or metal.

    A doctor will consider performing bypass surgery for patients who have locally advanced but inoperable pancreatic cancer, and for those whose life expectancy is longer than six months. Tumor bypass surgery reroutes the flow of digestive juices to relieve the patient's digestive problems. Surgical procedures that bypass pancreatic tumors involve rerouting the connection to the upper part of the small intestine (duodenum).

    Some people with pancreatic cancer use various unproven alternative or complementary therapies to alleviate some symptoms. Alternative therapies such as massage therapy, physical exercise, or therapeutic touch should be used only after talking with your physician.

    • Massage. Touching, stroking, or kneading muscles of the body to ease muscle and bone discomfort, improve circulation, reduce swelling, and promote relaxation and pain control.
    • Herbal. Stimulates the immune system and helps to control symptoms and treatment side effects.
    • Vitamin supplements. Prevents vitamin and mineral deficiencies as a result of not eating well.

    In most cases, the survival rate from a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is less than six months. Patients with early disease rarely show symptoms of pancreatic cancer. By the time the patient does display symptoms of cancer, the disease may be significantly advanced.

    Although most pancreatic cancer patients can’t have surgery, 20% to 25% of those who have surgery to remove the pancreatic tumor live at least 5 years after their cancer is diagnosed. Fewer than 15% of patients with pancreatic cancer are candidates for surgery. For those who do not opt for treatment, the median survival from diagnosis is usually less than 6 months.

    Contact your physician if your symptoms are not relieved within a reasonable period of time. While treatment options will not cure pancreatic cancer, they are intended to relieve some of the negative symptoms associated with the cancer.

    Report any drug complications or side effects to your physician promptly. There are side effects associated with the four treatments for pancreatic cancer. Occasionally, medication will need to be adjusted based on changes in your condition.

    Keep follow-up exams while undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer. During these exams, the doctor will check to see if your cancer progresses or returns. Check-ups may involve a physical exam, blood, urine, and stool testing, and imaging.

Meet the Pharmacists

I'm Shereen A. Gharbia, PharmD. Welcome to PDR Health!

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