Surgery for pancreatic cancer (resection) is usually the most suitable treatment for people with early-stage disease who are in good health. The surgeon will aim to remove all the tumour from the pancreas as well as the surrounding tissue.

The type of surgery for early-stage pancreatic cancer will depend on the size of the tumour and where it is located. Options include:

Recovery after surgery can take some time, but there are ways to deal with the common issues that arise. 

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Whipple procedure

The Whipple procedure (pancreaticoduodenectomy) is a major operation that is done by specialised pancreatic or HPB surgeons. This is the most common resection surgery for exocrine pancreatic tumours.

During this procedure the surgeon will remove:

  • the part of the pancreas where the cancer is (usually the head)
  • the first part of the small bowel (duodenum)
  • part of the stomach
  • the gall bladder and part of the bile duct.

The surgeon reconnects the remaining part of the pancreas, bile duct and stomach (or duodenum) to different sections of the small bowel to keep the digestive tract working. This allows food, pancreatic juices and bile to continue to flow into the small bowel for the next stage of digestion.

The surgery usually lasts 5–8 hours and most patients stay in hospital for 1–2 weeks afterwards.

Find out about tips on managing dietary problems after a Whipple procedure.

Before Whipple operation

After Whipple operation

Read more about the Whipple procedure

Distal pancreatectomy

This surgery is more likely an option to treat early-stage pancreatic NETs.

The surgeon removes only the tail of the pancreas or the tail and a portion of the body of the pancreas. The spleen is usually removed as well. The spleen helps the body fight infections, so if it is removed you are at higher risk of some bacterial infections.

Your doctor may recommend vaccinations before this surgery.

Total pancreatectomy

When cancer is large, or multiple tumours are found, the entire pancreas and spleen may be removed, along with the gallbladder, bile duct, part of the stomach and small intestine, and nearby lymph nodes. This is called a total pancreatectomy.

It is possible to live without a pancreas. However, the body will no longer produce insulin, so you will need to have regular insulin injections. It will also be necessary to take pancreatic enzyme pills to help digest certain foods.

Surgery to relieve symptoms − During the surgery to remove the cancer, the surgeon may find that the cancer has spread (metastasised) or grown into one or more of the major blood vessels in the area. This may occur even if you had several scans and tests beforehand.

If this happens, the surgeon will not be able to remove the
tumour. However, the surgeon may be able to perform
procedures that will relieve some of the symptoms caused
by the cancer. Find out more in Advanced pancreatic cancer.

This information was last reviewed in February 2016.
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