MD Anderson has the expertise and experience to fight pancreatic cancer on all fronts. Using the latest, most advanced therapies for pancreatic cancer, we personalize your care to ensure the most advanced pancreatic cancer treatment with the least impact on your body. We offer the latest innovative pancreatic cancer treatments — many available at only a few cancer centers in the nation — including targeted therapies.
Frequently, pancreatic cancer treatment requires more than one type of therapy. We are recognized as a leader in customizing treatment for pancreatic cancer, which often translates into positive results that might not be possible elsewhere.
Skilled Surgeons, Latest Techniques
The surgical techniques to treat pancreatic cancer are extremely complex. The surgeon must have a high degree of experience and skill to be successful.
Our surgeons are among the most experienced and skilled in the nation — and this is an important factor in the success of your surgery for pancreatic cancer. The highest chances for successful treatment are when 100% of the tumor is removed. This requires expertise as well as powerful microscopes to be sure the entire tumor has been removed.
If surgery is possible, our approach to pancreatic cancer usually is to complete chemotherapy and radiation before surgery. This method increases chances the tumor can be removed completely, helps chemotherapy and radiation be more effective, and makes for better recovery.
Pancreatic Cancer Treatments
If you are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, your doctor will discuss the best options to treat it. This depends on several factors, including the type and stage of the cancer and your general health.
Your pancreatic cancer treatment will be customized to your needs. One or more of the following therapies may be recommended to treat the cancer or help relieve symptoms.
Surgery for pancreatic cancer may be used to help treat the cancer or to help relieve symptoms such as blocked bile ducts or intestine.
Only about 10% of pancreatic cancers are contained entirely within the pancreas at the time of diagnosis. Attempts to remove the entire cancer may be successful in some patients. But even when the cancer seems to have not spread, cancer cells too few to detect may have spread to other parts of the body.
The main types of surgery for pancreatic cancer are:
- Curative: Attempt to treat pancreatic cancer by removing it
- Palliative: Attempt to relieve symptoms of pancreatic cancer and make you more comfortable
Pancreaticoduodenectomy is the most common surgery to attempt to remove a pancreatic tumor. Also known as the Whipple procedure, this operation removes:
- Head of the pancreas
- Body of the pancreas (in some patients)
- Part of the stomach
- Duodenum (first part of the small intestine)
- A small portion of the jejunum (second part of the small intestine)
- Lymph nodes near the pancreas
- Part of the common bile duct
This major operation carries a high risk of complications, even when it is performed by experienced surgeons. About 30% to 50% of patients suffer complications, including leakage from surgical connections, infections and bleeding.
The surgery takes from six to 12 hours and requires a seven- to 10-day stay in the hospital. You may need nutritional support with a feeding tube or through a vein. Recovery will take about a month. It will be three months before your digestive system works well again.
Studies have shown this pancreatic cancer procedure is more successful and has less risk when it is performed at a major cancer center by doctors with extensive experience in the procedures.
Distal pancreatectomy removes only the tail of the pancreas, or the tail and a part of the body of the pancreas. The spleen usually is removed as well. This operation is used more often with islet cell tumors.
Total pancreatectomy, which removes the entire pancreas and the spleen, was once used for tumors in the body or head of the pancreas. However, when the entire pancreas is removed, patients are left without islet cells, which produce insulin. They develop hard-to-manage diabetes and become dependent on injected insulin. Studies have not shown any advantage to removing the whole pancreas.
Surgical techniques to help relieve symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:
Stent placement: Metal tubes that help keep the bile duct open are inserted, avoiding blockage. This procedure is used more often than biliary bypass. Stents may be placed with an endoscope.
Biliary bypass: The surgeon makes a cut in the gallbladder or bile duct and then sews it to the small intestine. This helps when a tumor is blocking the small intestine and causing bile to build up in the gallbladder. This surgery also may help relieve pain.
Gastric bypass: When pancreatic cancer blocks the stomach, the stomach may be sewn to the small intestine, allowing you to eat normally.
These may be used to help treat exocrine pancreatic cancer when a few tumors have spread. They include:
- Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) heats and destroys tissue with radio waves
- Microwave thermotherapy uses microwaves to heat and destroy cancer
- Cryosurgery or cryoablation freezes tissue to destroy it
Embolization or chemoembolization delivers substances, such as radiation therapy or chemotherapy, to the blood vessels around the tumor, cutting off the blood supply to the pancreatic cancer.
Chemotherapy: MD Anderson offers the most up-to-date and advanced chemotherapy options for pancreatic cancer.
Radiation therapy: New radiation therapy techniques and remarkable skill allow MD Anderson doctors to target pancreatic cancer tumors more precisely, delivering the maximum amount of radiation with the least damage to healthy cells.
MD Anderson is among just a few cancer centers in the nation that offer targeted therapies for some types of pancreatic cancer. These innovative new drugs stop the growth of cancer cells by interfering with certain proteins and receptors or blood vessels that supply the tumor with what it needs to grow.
Nutrition and Pancreatic Cancer
If you have pancreatic cancer you may not feel like eating, especially when you are uncomfortable or tired. In addition, side effects of treatment, such as difficulty swallowing, nausea and vomiting, can make eating difficult.
At MD Anderson, dietitians are a part of your care team. They help establish diet plans and address specific nutritional needs.
Some pancreatic cancer patients who have problems swallowing may require a feeding (enteral) tube. Tube feeding may be temporary to treat acute conditions or long term in the case of chronic illness. A specially trained dietitian teaches patients and caregivers how to use and manage the tube and provides information about nutritional supplements.
Our Pancreatic Cancer Clinical Trials
At MD Anderson, you benefit from one of the most active pancreatic cancer research programs in the United States. This means we are able to offer a wide range of clinical trials (research studies) of new treatments for every type and stage of pancreatic cancer.
MD Anderson is studying ways to make treatment for pancreatic cancer more effective. We’re working to understand pancreatic cancer at the molecular level. Our numerous pancreatic cancer clinical trials include gene therapy, including tumor suppressor genes, targeted therapies and drugs that target epidermal growth factor.
Treatment at MD Anderson
Pancreatic cancer treated in our Gastrointestinal Center.
MD Anderson patients have access to clinical trials offering
promising new treatments that cannot be found anywhere else.
Find the latest news and information about pancreatic cancer in our
Knowledge Center, including blog posts, articles, videos, news
releases and more.
When Mai Salem looks in the mirror, she sees a survivor. After all,
she's beaten pancreatic
cancer twice. Her journey has changed the way she faces each
"Now I focus on the good and positive things," Mai says. "I don't think about anything but living."
A second pancreatic cancer treatment journey
Mai received her first pancreatic cancer diagnosis seven years ago. After three rounds of chemotherapy and multiple surgeries, Mai was cancer-free. But five years later, her pancreatic cancer returned.
Initially, Mai was devastated, but with the help of her family, friends and medical team, she found the strength to go through pancreatic cancer treatment for a second time. She underwent four rounds of chemotherapy before her doctors told her they didn't think her body could handle any more. She would have to return to her home in Virginia and wait to see if it had worked. In January, doctors told Mai the chemo had worked and scheduled her for another surgery. On Feb. 12, 2014, Mai returned to MD Anderson and received good news. Her scans showed no evidence of disease (NED).
"I was so happy and relieved, but most of all, I felt so blessed to be alive," Mai says. "I'm eternally grateful for this second chance and enjoying my every NED moment. It can't get any better than this."
Mai's first cancer journey was difficult, but after her second diagnosis, she felt strong. She made sure to maintain a healthy diet, exercise a little each day and spend time with friends and family. But most importantly, Mai maintained hope.
"A good attitude, perseverance, strong faith, as well as a support system go a long way in fighting this battle. It sure helped mine," she says.
Mai also attributes her health to her husband and caregiver, David.
"He taught me about determination, about perseverance and about doing what it takes to get where I am now," she says.
Appreciating life after pancreatic cancer treatment
Mai's second cancer journey changed her outlook. Because she knows her cancer can always return, now, more than ever, she's more focused on enjoying every moment.
"Through this journey, I've learned that it's very important to keep moving and striving to find life's silver linings," she says. "Whenever I don't feel well, I think of the things I'm grateful for. Gratitude changes everything."
She plans to continue helping others by volunteering with myCancerConnection, MD Anderson's one-on-one support program. Mai hopes that sharing her journey will inspire others.
She also plans to spend lots of time with her friends and family. After going through cancer treatment twice, Mai refuses to waste a moment.
"Each day I celebrate my victory, my joy and the priceless adventure that life truly is. My time is not over. It's just more valuable," Mai says. "I'm going to enjoy the very best life I can."