Treatment to manage cancer and symptoms
Pancreatic cancer usually has no symptoms in its early stages, so many people are diagnosed when the cancer is advanced. If the cancer involves nearby organs or blood vessels (locally advanced – some stage 3 cancers) or has spread to other parts of the body (metastasised – all stage 4 cancers), surgery to remove the cancer may not be possible. Instead, treatments will focus on shrinking or slowing the growth of the cancer and relieving symptoms without trying to cure the disease. This is called palliative treatment.
Learn more about:
- An overview
- Surgery to relieve symptoms
- Radiation therapy
- Targeted therapy and immunotherapy
- Palliative treatment
Some people think that palliative treatment is only for people at the end of life. However, it can help at any stage of a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. It does not mean giving up hope – rather, it is about managing symptoms as they occur, and living as fully and comfortably as possible. Some studies show that if the palliative team is seen early and symptoms are controlled, people will feel better and may live longer.
Palliative treatments may include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, either on their own or in combination. This section describes how cancer treatments are used to manage the cancer and relieve some common symptoms of advanced pancreatic cancer, such as:
- jaundice caused by narrowing of the common bile duct
- ongoing vomiting and weight loss caused by a blockage in the stomach or small bowel
- pain in the abdomen and middle back.
Many people with advanced pancreatic cancer have digestive problems. For example, a blockage in the pancreatic duct can stop the flow of the digestive enzymes required to break down food. This can be treated with pancreatic enzyme supplements.
Managing pain in pancreatic cancer
If pain becomes an issue, you may need a combination of treatments to achieve good pain control. Options for relieving pain may include:
- strong pain medicines such as opioids
- nerve blocks – injecting anaesthetic or alcohol into nerves
- anticonvulsant medicines to help control nerve pain
- chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy to shrink cancer pressing on nerves
- complementary therapies such as acupuncture, massage and relaxation techniques.
Tell your treatment team if you have any pain, as it is easier to control if treated early. Don’t wait until the pain is severe.
Your team can also refer you to a pain specialist if needed.
Podcast for people affected by advanced cancer
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
Dr Benjamin Loveday, Hepato-Pancreato-Biliary (HPB) Surgeon, Royal Melbourne Hospital and Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Katherine Allsopp, Palliative Medicine Physician, Crown Princess Mary Cancer Centre, Westmead Hospital, NSW; Hollie Bevans, Senior Dietitian, Radiotherapy and Oncology, Western Health, VIC; Dr Lorraine Chantrill, Head of Department Medical Oncology, Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District, NSW; Amanda Maxwell, Consumer; Prof Michael Michael, Medical Oncologist, Lower and Upper GI Oncology Service, Co-Chair Neuroendocrine Unit, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and University of Melbourne, VIC; Dr Andrew Oar, Radiation Oncologist, Icon Cancer Centre, Gold Coast University Hospital, QLD; Meg Rogers, Nurse Consultant Upper GI/NET Service, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Ady Sipthorpe, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA.
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