Advanced pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer usually has no symptoms in its early stages, so many people are diagnosed when the cancer is advanced. If the cancer is in nearby organs or blood vessels (locally advanced), or has spread (metastasised) to other parts of the body, surgery to remove the cancer may not be possible. Instead treatments will focus on relieving symptoms such as jaundice, digestive problems and pain. This is called palliative treatment.

It is often assumed 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 for as long as possible in the most satisfying way you can.

Here we look at treatments for managing common symptoms of advanced pancreatic cancer, such as:

  • jaundice – caused by narrowing of the common bile duct
  • persistent vomiting and weight loss – caused by a blockage in the stomach or small bowel
  • poor digestion – caused by blockage of the pancreatic duct, which stops the flow of the digestive enzymes required to break down food
  • pain – in the abdomen and middle back.

These treatments may include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, either on their own or in combination.

Find out more about managing dietary issues that may be caused by pancreatic cancer and its treatment.

Learn more about these treatments for advanced pancreatic cancer:

Listen to a podcast on Making Treatment Decisions

Pain management for pancreatic cancer

A range of treatments can help to relieve pain in pancreatic cancer. These include:

  • strong medicines such as opioids
  • nerve blocks – injecting anaesthetic into nerves
  • chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy to shrink cancer pressing on nerves.

Tell your treatment team about any pain, as it is easier to control if treated early. They can also refer you to a pain specialist if needed.

For more on this, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or see Overcoming cancer pain.

This information was last reviewed in February 2018
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