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What is pancreatic cancer treatment?

Learn about pancreatic cancer treatment options.

A CT scan can help inform medical professionals how to approach pancreatic cancer treatment. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
A CT scan can help inform medical professionals how to approach pancreatic cancer treatment.

The pancreas secretes juices and hormones that aid digestion and help break down nutrients inside the body. It also makes insulin, which controls the amount of sugar in the blood. Pancreatic cancer tends to show few symptoms and spread rapidly, resulting in a high fatality ratio for this type of cancer. 

Pancreatic cancer is a leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. and the world. To find out more about research on the topic, visit the National Pancreas Foundation’s Web site

Detecting Pancreatic Cancer

Doctors use a variety of methods to verify the existence of cancer of the pancreas: 

  • Computed tomography (CT) scans look at detailed cross-sections of the pancreas using computer images.
  • An ultrasound uses sound waves and echoes to create a picture of the pancreas.
  • An endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatogram (ECRP) reveals an X-ray of the pancreas.
  • An endoscopic ultrasound uses the same technology as an ECRP to take an ultrasound of the pancreas.
  • A biopsy, a procedure where doctors remove a tissue sample from the pancreas and analyze it, is the most conclusive procedure in detecting pancreatic cancer. Doctors can use large needles or a brush inserted with the ECRP technology to extract tissue samples. If a biopsy is inconclusive, it may need to be repeated.

Stages of Pancreatic Cancer

Once pancreatic cancer is detected, the stage and severity of the cancer is determined by a laparotomy, an operation that allows a doctor to look at and collect tissue samples from all the organs in the abdomen in order to determine if the cancer has spread to organs other than the pancreas. 

Stage I, the lowest stage, indicates that the cancer has not spread beyond the pancreas. The stages progress in severity to Stage IV, the highest stage. Stage IV pancreatic cancer indicates that the cancer has spread to distant organs like the liver or lungs. Doctors can choose the best treatment according to the stage of the cancer.

Pancreatic Cancer Treatment

If the cancer is confined to the pancreas, surgical procedures can be used to remove the tumor. A surgery called the Whipple procedure removes the head of the pancreas, part of the stomach, part of the small intestine and the bile duct. 

The total pancreatectomy and the distal pancreatectomy either entirely or partially remove the pancreas and possibly part or all of the spleen. If these surgeries are successful, all of the cancerous cells are removed from the body. 

Radiation therapy and chemotherapy are used as treatments against cancer that cannot be removed with surgery or has spread beyond the pancreas. Radiation therapy directs radiation at cancer cells to kill them, while chemotherapy slows cancer growth and kills cancer cells through powerful drugs taken either orally or injected. 

Since pancreatic cancer interrupts the function of the pancreas, it prevents patients from digesting food normally. Thus, an important aspect of treating a patient with pancreatic cancer involves making sure they get the right nutrition and maintain their weight. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network has information about the right nutrition for a patient with pancreatic cancer that includes recipes.

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