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Pancreatic cancer treatment options

Pancreatic cancer is one of America’s deadliest cancers because symptoms often don’t appear until the patient is in a later stage of the disease.

“It’s hard to treat and when it’s diagnosed, it’s usually diagnosed very late,” says Kevin Nguyen, M.D., a hepatobiliary surgeon at Piedmont Transplant Institute.

By the time many patients have symptoms, the cancer may be too advanced, invading blood vessels that cannot be removed, or it has metastasized to the liver or lungs.

The most common symptoms of pancreatic cancer

Symptoms vary from person to person, but can include:

  • Pain in the upper back or upper abdomen
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Indigestion
  • Jaundice (yellow skin and eyes, dark urine)
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Extreme fatigue

Treatment options for pancreatic cancer

Less than 20 percent of pancreatic cancer patients are candidates for surgery, which is the key for a cure.

“The only chance for a potential cure of pancreatic cancer is the combination of surgery, chemotherapy, plus or minus radiation,” explains Dr. Nguyen. “Without surgery, the only treatment is chemo and radiation and that is not curative. It’s only palliative, [meaning] it would only try to slow it down.”

Surgical options for pancreatic cancer

Piedmont offers several surgical options for patients with pancreatic cancer, including:

The Whipple procedure

Most pancreatic tumors are found in the head of the pancreas, making this surgical procedure the most common. During the Whipple procedure, the head of the pancreas, part of the small intestine, the gall bladder, part of the stomach and the lymph nodes near the head of the pancreas are removed.

Distal pancreatectomy

For cancers that affect the tail and the body of the pancreas, surgeons can perform a distal pancreatectomy. In this procedure, both sections of the pancreas are removed, as well as the spleen.

Both of these surgeries can be performed robotically.

“The diagnosis of pancreas cancer is a devastating diagnosis,” says Dr. Nguyen. “But we have options –surgical and non-surgical options. For patients who are able to proceed with surgery, their life expectancy is longer.”

For more information on pancreatic cancer treatment, click here.  

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