Treatment for early pancreatic cancer
This section gives an overview of treatments used for early-stage adenocarcinomas and other exocrine tumours of the pancreas, generally referred to as early pancreatic cancer. The treatment options we describe here will only be suitable for 15–20% of people with pancreatic cancer, as most people are diagnosed at a later stage.
Surgery to remove the cancer, in combination with chemotherapy and possibly radiation therapy, is generally the most effective treatment for early pancreatic cancer. It is important that a surgeon who specialises in pancreatic cancer does the surgery.
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Your surgeon may recommend you have other treatments before surgery to shrink the tumour, or after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells. These treatments are known as neoadjuvant (before) and adjuvant (after) therapies, and may include:
- chemotherapy – the use of drugs to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells
- chemoradiation – chemotherapy combined with radiation therapy.
Treatment for pancreatic cancer is highly specialised. This is especially the case with surgery for early pancreatic cancer. There is strong evidence that outcomes are better with an experienced surgeon who performs the operation at least several times a year.
Specialist treatment centres have multidisciplinary teams of health professionals experienced in treating pancreatic cancer. These centres see a lot of people with pancreatic cancer and are also associated with better outcomes. Visiting one of these centres gives you access to a wide range of treatment options, but it may mean you need to travel away from home for treatment. To find a specialist treatment centre for pancreatic cancer, talk to your GP.
If you live in a rural or regional area and have to travel a long way for appointments or treatment, ask your doctor what support is available to coordinate your trip. You may also be able to get financial assistance towards the cost of accommodation or travel. To check whether you are eligible or to apply, speak to your GP or the hospital social worker, or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.
Podcast: Making Treatment Decisions
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
Dr Lorraine Chantrill, Head of Department, Medical Oncology, Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District, NSW; Marion Bamblett, Nurse Unit Manager, Cancer Centre, Fiona Stanley Hospital, WA; Prof Katherine Clark, Clinical Director of Palliative Care, Northern Sydney Local Health District Cancer and Palliative Care Network, and Conjoint Professor, Northern Clinical School, The University of Sydney, NSW; Lynda Dunstone, Consumer; Kate Graham, Accredited Practising Dietitian – Upper GI Dietitian, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Gina Hesselberg, Radiation Oncologist, St George Hospital Cancer Centre, NSW; Dr Marni Nenke, Endocrinologist and Mary Overton Early Career Research Fellow, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; A/Prof Nicholas O’Rourke, Head of Hepatobiliary Surgery, Royal Brisbane Hospital and The University of Queensland, QLD; Rose Rocca, Senior Clinical Dietitian – Upper GI, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Gail Smith, Consumer. We also thank the health professionals, consumers and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions of this title.
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