Treatment for early pancreatic cancer

If you have pancreatic cancer, your medical team will discuss the best treatment for you based on the following factors:

  • the stage of the tumour (the site, size and if it has spread)
  • your general health
  • your preferences.

Here we look at treatments used for early-stage adenocarcinomas and other exocrine tumours of the pancreas, generally referred to as early pancreatic cancer. These treatment options will be suitable for only 15–20% of people with pancreatic cancer, as most people are diagnosed at a later stage.

Learn more about the treatment of advanced pancreatic cancer, or treatment options for pancreatic NETs.

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 to have the surgery done by a surgeon who specialises in pancreatic cancer.

Learn more about:

Treatments before or after surgery

Your surgeon may recommend you see other specialists for 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.

Making treatment decisions

Sometimes it is difficult to decide on the type of treatment to have. You may feel that everything is happening too fast. Check with your doctor how soon your treatment should start, and take as much time as you can before making a decision.

Understanding the disease, the available treatments and possible side effects can help you weigh up the pros and cons of different treatments and make a well-informed decision that’s based on your personal values. You may also want to discuss the options with your doctor, friends and family.

You have the right to accept or refuse any treatment offered. Some people with incurable cancer choose treatment even if it only offers a small benefit for a short period of time. Others want to make sure the benefits outweigh the side effects so that they have the best possible quality of life.

In some cases, you may be able to take part in a clinical trial that is testing new or modified treatments.

To find out more about decision-making steps, consent and second opinions, go to Making cancer treatment decisions.

You may find our Question checklist helpful when thinking about the questions you want to ask your doctor. 

Life after treatment

Pancreatic cancer, and treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, can affect your ability to eat, digest and absorb food. This can have a significant impact on nutrition. Find out more about managing dietary issues in After treatment.

This information was last reviewed in February 2018
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