Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells. It is used for pancreatic cancer for various reasons. If the cancer is at a stage where it can be removed with surgery, chemotherapy is often used before or after the surgery. When surgery cannot remove the cancer, chemotherapy can be used as a palliative treatment to slow the growth of the cancer and relieve symptoms. For some stage 3 cancers, chemotherapy may be combined with radiation therapy. This is known as chemoradiation.
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The chemotherapy drugs are usually given as a liquid through a drip inserted into a vein in the arm (intravenous infusion) or as tablets that you swallow. To avoid damaging the veins in your arm, it may also be given through a tube implanted into a vein (called a port, catheter, central line or PICC line). This will stay in place until all your chemotherapy treatment is over.
You will usually receive treatment as an outpatient. Typically, you will have several courses of treatment, with rest periods of a few weeks in between. Your medical oncologist will assess how the treatment is working based on your symptoms and wellbeing, as well as scans and blood tests. The blood tests will help show if your body is able to cope with the chemotherapy.
Tell your team about any prescription, over-the-counter or natural medicines you are taking or planning to take, as these may affect how the chemotherapy works in your body.
Chemotherapy can affect healthy cells in the body, which may cause side effects. Some people have few side effects, while others have many. The side effects will depend on the drugs used and the dose. Your medical oncologist and chemotherapy nurses will explain the possible side effects to you, the best ways to manage them and who to contact if you need support.
Side effects of chemotherapy may include:
- feeling very tired (fatigue)
- feeling sick (nausea)
- mouth ulcers and skin rashes
- hair loss
- diarrhoea or constipation
- flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache and muscle soreness
- poor appetite.
Chemotherapy can also affect the number of cells in your blood. Fewer white blood cells can mean you are more likely to catch infections. Fewer red blood cells (anaemia) can leave you weak and breathless.
Most chemotherapy side effects are temporary and can be managed, so discuss how you are feeling with your treatment team. If you are having chemotherapy as a palliative treatment, they will help you weigh up the benefits of improving your cancer symptoms against any side effects it is causing.
For more on this, see our general section on Chemotherapy.
Many people with pancreatic cancer experience fatigue. This is different to normal tiredness as it doesn’t always go away with rest or sleep. The fatigue may be a side effect of treatment or caused by the cancer itself. Managing fatigue is an important part of cancer care. For more on this, see Fatigue and cancer or listen to our podcast on Managing Cancer Fatigue.
I found chemo a bit daunting – walking into the room with the chairs lined up. But the nurses were great and talked through it with me so I knew what to expect.Cheryl
Video: What is chemotherapy?
Watch this short video to learn more about chemotherapy and how it’s used for cancer treatment.
Podcast: Managing Cancer Fatigue
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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