There are different treatments available for patients with pancreatic cancer, including surgery, radiation therapy and drug therapy. Your doctor will use the following criteria to develop a treatment plan:
About 15 percent to 20 percent of patients with pancreatic cancer are diagnosed early enough that their tumor can be removed surgically. Typically, however, only smaller tumors are surgically removed and even then, cancer often returns.
Pancreatic cancer surgery is a complex procedure. Studies have found that patients do better overall when their surgery is performed at a medical center with a high volume of these surgical procedures. Although the definition of high volume varies by study, UCSF surgeons perform major pancreatic surgeries at a rate well above that which is considered high volume. We are among the most experienced and successful in performing this exacting surgery to treat pancreatic cancer.
Surgery may be performed to remove all or part of the pancreas and nearby tissue. Surgery is also used to try to minimize the complications caused by pancreatic cancer. The kind of surgery recommended depends on your type of cancer, location of the tumor, your symptoms, whether the cancer involves other organs and whether the cancer can be completely removed. It is important to note that even after having surgery, the cancer often recurs.
If imaging studies show that all of your tumor may be potentially removed, one of the following procedures may be performed:
Radiation therapy is the use of X-rays or high-energy rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation is typically delivered by a machine outside the body, called external radiation therapy. Less common, experimental approaches use materials called radioisotopes delivered inside the body through intravenous or local injection.
The use of radiation therapy depends on a number of factors including tumor location, size, organ involvement and previous treatments. Radiation can be used alone or in addition to surgery and chemotherapy. Newer approaches, such as stereotactic radiosurgery with a machine called a CyberKnife are also being explored.
Cancer drugs may be taken by mouth as a pill or may be put into the body by a needle in the vein. Cancer drugs are a systemic treatment, which means that they enter the bloodstream and travel throughout the body. They attempt to wipe out any cancer cells after surgery or to control disease when surgery is not feasible.
These medications are sometimes taken at the same time as radiation therapy to try to achieve a better result. Drug therapy aims to control cancer, prevent complications and help people live longer and feel better.
Sometimes newer cancer drugs are referred to as targeted therapy. Targeted therapy is a general term that typically refers to a new class of drugs or agents that are designed to target specific parts or pathways that regulate cancer cell growth. In addition, doctors hope that targeted therapies will be less likely to cause unpleasant side effects by minimizing damage to normal cells. This is an area of research that is ever-growing; our pancreatic scientists and doctors are increasingly involved in research studies and clinical trials developing targeted therapies.
UCSF researchers are at the forefront of studying new therapies for pancreatic cancer. Patients may participate in clinical trials to test new therapies for pancreatic cancer. Clinical trials are experiments designed to improve existing treatment or to test the safety and effectiveness of new treatments.
Participation in a clinical trial is voluntary. Prior to enrollment in a clinical trial, patients are given a document called a consent form that explains the goals of the trial, the therapy to be used, risks and benefits and any associated costs, if applicable. There are a number of mechanisms in place, both legal and ethical, to protect the rights and safety of clinical trial volunteers.
Clinical trials can allow patients access to newer, unproven treatments. They also allow doctor and researchers access to data collected from clinical trial volunteers. Clinical trials will lead to better cancer treatments.
View our current list of pancreatic cancer clinical trials.
Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.