Chemotherapy for advanced pancreatic cancer

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells. It is sometimes used in combination with radiation therapy (chemoradiation) to treat locally advanced pancreatic cancer, i.e. cancer that has spread beyond the pancreas and cannot be removed with surgery.

If you have advanced pancreatic cancer, chemotherapy may be given as palliative treatment to relieve symptoms.

      − Cheryl

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Having chemotherapy

If you need chemotherapy, you will be referred to a medical oncologist.

You will usually have the chemotherapy drugs by drip into a vein (intravenously). To avoid damaging the arm veins, it may be given through a small device called a port-a-cath. This is inserted under the skin near the collarbone and can stay in place until all your chemotherapy treatment is over.

Typically, you will have each course of treatment as an outpatient, and it will be followed by a break or rest period of 1–3 weeks. Your medical team will assess how the treatment is working based on your symptoms and well-being, as well as scans and blood tests.

Tell your doctors 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. For information about natural medicines and other complementary therapies, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or see Complementary therapies.

Side effects of chemotherapy

Chemotherapy affects all fast-growing cells in the body. As well as killing cancer cells, it can damage healthy fast-growing cells such as white blood cells (which fight infections), hair cells and the cells lining the mouth and digestive system. These healthy cells usually recover quickly, but until then, you may have side effects such as:

  • fatigue and tiredness
  • nausea and/or vomiting
  • fewer red blood cells (anaemia), leaving you weak and breathless
  • fewer white blood cells, causing poor resistance to infection
  • mouth ulcers and skin rashes
  • hair loss (only with some chemotherapy drugs)
  • diarrhoea and/or constipation
  • flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache and muscle soreness
  • poor appetite.

You may have none or only some of these side effects. Most side effects are temporary and can be managed, so discuss how you are feeling with your medical oncologist and chemotherapy nurses.

For more on this, talk to your treatment team, call Cancer Council 13 11 20, or see Chemotherapy.

Immunotherapy is a type of cancer drug treatment that uses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. So far, immunotherapy has had disappointing results for pancreatic cancer, but research is continuing and there are new clinical trials underway.

Video: What is chemotherapy?

Watch this short video to learn more about chemotherapy and how it’s used for cancer treatment.

This information was last reviewed in February 2018
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