What is Pancreatic Cancer?

Source: American Cancer Society

February, 2013

The pancreas is an organ found deep in the body, behind the stomach. It is shaped a little bit like a fish. It is about 6 inches long and less than 2 inches wide. It goes across the belly (abdomen).

The pancreas contains 2 different kinds of glands. The exocrine glands make pancreatic “juice.” This juice has enzymes which break down fats and proteins in the foods you eat so the body can use them. Most of the cells in the pancreas are part of the exocrine system. A smaller number of cells in the pancreas are endocrine cells. These cells are arranged in clusters called islets. They make hormones like insulin that help balance the amount of sugar in the blood.


Types of pancreatic tumors

Both the exocrine and endocrine cells of the pancreas can form tumors. But tumors formed by the exocrine cells are much more common. When someone says that they have pancreatic cancer, they usually mean an exocrine pancreatic cancer. Not all of the tumors in the pancreas are cancer. A small number are not cancer (they are benign).

It is important to know whether a tumor is from the exocrine or endocrine part of the pancreas. Each type of tumor has its own signs and symptoms, is found using different tests, is treated in different ways, and has a different outlook for survival (prognosis).

Exocrine tumors

Exocrine tumors are by far the most common type of pancreas cancer. Nearly all of these tumors are a kind called adenocarcinomas. (An adenocarcinoma is a cancer that starts in gland cells.) Treatment of cancer of the exocrine pancreas is mostly based on the stage of the cancer, not its exact type. The stage of the cancer describes how far it has progressed. Pancreatic cancer staging is described in the section “Staging for pancreatic cancer.”

A special type of cancer (called ampullary cancer) can start where the bile duct (from the liver) and the pancreatic duct empty into the small intestine (called the ampulla of Vater –see the drawing above). This type of cancer often causes signs such as yellowing of the skin and eyes, so it is usually found at an earlier stage than most pancreatic cancers. Finding it early means that the chances of successful treatment are better. Ampullary cancers are covered here with pancreatic cancer because their treatments are very much alike.

Endocrine tumors

Tumors of the endocrine pancreas are much less common. They are known as islet cell tumors or neuroendocrine tumors and are divided into several sub-types. Most of these are not cancer (benign), but there are a few that are cancer.

The information here refers only to exocrine cancer and ampullary cancer. Please see our document, Pancreatic Cancer to learn more about neuroendocrine tumors of the pancreas.


How many people get pancreatic cancer?

The American Cancer Society’s estimates for pancreatic cancer in the United States for 2013 are:

  • About 45,220 new cases of pancreatic cancer
  • About 38,460 deaths from pancreatic cancer

Rates of pancreatic cancer have been slowly going up over the past 10 years.

The lifetime risk of having pancreatic cancer is about 1 in 78. It is about the same for both men and women.


What are the risk factors for pancreatic cancer?

We still do not know exactly what causes most cases of pancreatic cancer. But some risk factors have been linked to the disease. A risk factor is something that affects a person’s chance of getting a disease such as cancer. Some risk factors, like smoking, can be changed. Others, like a person’s age or race, can’t be changed.

Recent research has shown that some of these risk factors affect the DNA of cells in the pancreas, which can lead to abnormal cell growth and may cause tumors to form. DNA is the substance in each cell that carries our genes — the instructions for how our cells work.

But risk factors don’t tell us everything. Having a risk factor, or even several risk factors, does not mean that you will get the disease. And some people who get the disease do not have any known risk factors.

Risk factors for pancreatic cancer

Age: The risk of this cancer goes up as people age. Almost all patients are older than 45, and almost 7 in 10 are at least 65 years old. The average age at the time the cancer is found is 71.

Gender: Men are 30% more likely to get this cancer than women. This may be due, at least in part, to higher tobacco use in men.

Race: African Americans are more likely to have this cancer than are whites.

Smoking: The risk of getting cancer of the pancreas is at least twice as high in smokers compared to those who never smoked. Cigar and pipe smoking also increase risk. Quitting smoking helps lower risk – 10 years after quitting, former smokers have the same risk as those who never smoked. People who use smokeless tobacco are also more likely to get pancreatic cancer.

Obesity: Very overweight (obese) people are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.

Diabetes: Pancreatic cancer is more common in people with this disease. Most of the risk is found in people with type 2 diabetes. The reason for this is not known. In some patients, the cancer seems to have caused the diabetes (not the other way around).

Chronic pancreatitis: This is a long-term inflammation of the pancreas. It is linked with a slightly higher risk of pancreatic cancer, but most people with this condition do not get pancreatic cancer. A small number of cases of chronic pancreatitis appear to be due to a gene mutation (defect). People with this form of chronic pancreatitis seem to have a high lifetime risk for getting pancreatic cancer.

Cirrhosis of the liver: Cirrhosis is a scarring of the liver. It happens in people with liver damage from things like hepatitis and alcohol use. People with cirrhosis seem to have an increased risk of pancreatic cancer.

Work exposure: Heavy exposure at work to certain pesticides, dyes, and chemicals may increase the risk of getting cancer of the pancreas.

Family history: Cancer of the pancreas seems to run in some families. In some of these families, the high risk is due to a gene change (see below). In other families, the gene causing the higher risk of pancreatic cancer is not known.

Gene changes: Inherited gene changes (mutations) are abnormal copies of certain genes that can be passed from parent to child. These changed genes may cause pancreatic cancers and can cause other problems, too. Some of the genes that cause these problems have been found by scientists and can be recognized by genetic testing.

Stomach problems: Having too much stomach acid or having bacteria called H. pylori in the stomach may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.

Alcohol: Some studies have shown a link between heavy alcohol use and pancreatic cancer.


Can pancreatic cancer be prevented?

There is no sure way to prevent cancer of the pancreas at this time. For now, the best advice is to avoid smoking, the major risk factor that you can change. Tobacco use also increases the risk of many other cancers such as cancers of the lung, mouth, larynx (voice box), esophagus, kidney, bladder, and some other organs. If you smoke and want help quitting, please talk to your doctor or call the American Cancer Society.

Staying at a healthy weight, eating well, and exercising are also important. The American Cancer Society recommends choosing foods and beverages in amounts that help achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Eat a healthy diet, with an emphasis on plant foods. This includes eating at least 2½ cups of vegetables and fruits every day. Choosing whole-grain breads, pastas, and cereals instead of refined grains, and eating fish, poultry, or beans instead of processed meat and red meat may also help lower your risk of cancer, as well as some other diseases.

The full guidelines can be found in the American Cancer Society Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention. Read it on our Web site or call us for a free copy.


How is pancreatic cancer found?

It is hard to find pancreatic cancer early. Because the pancreas is deep inside the body, the doctor cannot see or feel tumors during a routine physical exam. By the time a person has symptoms, the cancer is usually large and has spread to other organs. This is the main reason that people with this cancer often have a poor outlook.

Right now there are no blood tests or other tests that can easily find this cancer early in people without symptoms. Doctors are looking at whether a test called endoscopic ultrasound might be useful to check people with a high risk of pancreatic cancer. Levels of tumor markers such as CA 19-9 and CEA may be higher than normal in people with pancreatic cancer, but the cancer is usually advanced by the time the levels become high.

Tests for certain gene defects can be done in people with a strong family history of the disease. These can help find people who have a higher risk for this cancer. The American Cancer Society strongly recommends that any person thinking about genetic testing talk with a genetic counselor, nurse, or doctor who can explain the about the test before they proceed with testing. It is important for people to understand and carefully weigh the benefits and risks of genetic testing before these tests are done. To learn more, see our document, Genetic Testing: What You Need to Know.

Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer

If one or more of the signs and symptoms described here is present, certain exams and tests may be done to find out whether they are caused by pancreatic cancer or by something else.

Jaundice: A yellowing of the eyes and skin is called jaundice. It is caused by a build-up of a substance (bilirubin) that is made in the liver. At least half of all people with pancreatic cancer (and all people with ampullary cancer) have jaundice. While jaundice can be a sign of cancer, more often it is caused by something else.

Pain: Pain in the belly area (abdomen) or in the middle of the back is a very common sign of advanced pancreatic cancer. Again, such pain is often caused by something else.

Weight loss: Losing weight (without trying) over a number of months is very common in patients with this cancer. They may also feel very tired and not feel like eating.

Digestive problems: If the cancer blocks the release of the pancreatic juice into the intestine, a person may not be able to digest fatty foods. Stools might be pale, bulky, greasy, and float in the toilet. Other problems may include nausea, vomiting, and pain that gets worse after eating.

Swollen gallbladder: The doctor may find that the gallbladder is enlarged. The doctor can sometimes feel this and see it on imaging studies.

Blood clots: Sometimes blood clots form in the veins of the legs, leading to swelling. These clots can sometimes travel to the lungs and cause breathing problems. But having a blood clot does not usually mean that you have cancer. Most blood clots are caused by other things.

Fatty tissue changes: Another clue that there may be pancreatic cancer is an uneven texture of the fatty tissue under the skin. This is caused by the release of the pancreatic enzymes that digest fat.

Diabetes: This cancer can cause problems with blood sugar. Sometimes (but not often) it can cause diabetes.


Tests to find pancreatic cancer

History and physical exam

First the doctor will ask questions about your health and do a physical exam. The exam will focus mostly on the belly (abdominal area). Sometimes this type of cancer spreads to the lymph nodes or to the liver so the doctor will check these for swelling. The skin and the white part of the eyes will be checked for yellow color (jaundice).

Certain other tests that make pictures of the inside of the body might also be done. These are called imaging tests.

Imaging tests

CT scan (computed tomography)

This is a special type of x-ray that creates detailed pictures of the inside of the body. CT scans are useful in finding cancer and in seeing how far it has spread. This is called staging the cancer.

CT scans show the pancreas clearly and often can confirm where the cancer is. CT scans can also show the organs near the pancreas, as well as lymph nodes and distant organs where the cancer might have spread. The CT scan can help the doctor to decide whether surgery is a good treatment option. CT scans can also be used to help guide a biopsy needle into the place that might be cancer (see below for more about biopsy).

A CT scanner has been described as a large donut, with a narrow table in the middle “hole.” You will need to lie still on the table while the scan is being done. CT scans take longer than regular x-rays, and you might feel a bit confined by the ring while the pictures are being taken.

Before the test, you may be asked to drink 1 to 2 pints of a liquid called oral contrast. This helps outline your insides so that certain areas are not mistaken for tumors. You may also have an IV line through which a different kind of contrast dye (IV contrast) is put in. This helps better outline structures such as blood vessels in your body.

The dye can cause some flushing (redness and warm feeling). A few people are allergic to the dye and get hives or, rarely, have more serious reactions like trouble breathing and low blood pressure. Be sure to tell the doctor if you have any allergies or have ever had a reaction to any contrast material used for x-rays.

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)

MRI scans use radio waves and strong magnets instead of x-rays to take pictures. Sometimes a contrast dye might be used, just as with CT scans. MRI scans are helpful in looking at the brain and spinal cord. MRI scans take longer than CT scans — often up to an hour. Also, you have to lie inside a narrow tube, which can upset some people. Special, “open” MRI machines can help with this if needed. The machine also makes loud thumping and clicking noises. Some places will give you headphones with music to block it out.

Most doctors prefer CT scans to look at the pancreas, but an MRI may sometimes give more information.

PET scan (positron emission tomography)

PET scans use a radioactive glucose (a type of sugar), which can be seen by a special camera. The radioactive material is put into a vein in your arm. Because cancer cells are very active, they take in large amounts of the sugar. A PET scan can be more helpful than many x-rays because it scans the whole body. This test is useful to see whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or to other places.

PET/CT scan: This test combines the 2 types of scans to even better pinpoint the tumor. This test may be especially useful for spotting cancer that has spread beyond the pancreas and can’t be removed by surgery. It may also be useful for staging the cancer. It may even be able to spot early cancer.


This test uses sound waves to make pictures of the inside of the body. The pictures are combined by a computer to give a detailed image. This test can help tell what kind of tumor is in the pancreas. For an ultrasound of the belly, a kind of wand (called a transducer) is moved around on the skin. But an endoscopic ultrasound is often the best way to look at pancreatic cancer. For this test, the wand (probe) is on the end of a long tube (called an endoscope) that is placed through the mouth or nose into the stomach. The probe can be pointed toward the pancreas. This gives a very good picture and is better than CT scans for spotting small tumors. Patients are given medicine to make them sleepy (sedated) for this type of ultrasound.

ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography)

For this test patients are given medicine to make them sleepy (sedated). Then a thin, flexible tube is passed down the throat, all the way into the small intestine. The doctor can see through the end of the tube and find where the common bile duct opens into the small intestine. A small amount of contrast dye is then pushed through the tube into the ducts. This dye outlines the ducts on x-rays. The pictures can show narrowed or blocked ducts that might be caused by a cancer of the pancreas. The doctor doing this test can also put a small brush through the tube to remove cells to look at under a microscope to see whether they look like cancer. ERCP can be used to place a small tube (stent) into the bile duct to keep it open if a nearby tumor is pressing on it.


This is a type of x-ray that uses a dye to look at blood vessels. It can show whether blood flow in an area is blocked or slowed by a tumor. It can also show if there are any abnormal blood vessels. The results help the doctors decide whether the cancer can be removed and helps them plan the surgery.

Angiography can be uncomfortable because the radiologist who does it has to put a small tube (called a catheter) into the artery leading to the pancreas. Usually the catheter is put into an artery in the inner thigh and threaded up to the pancreas. Medicine called a local anesthetic is often used to numb the area before putting in the catheter. Then the dye is quickly put in to outline all the vessels while the x-rays are being taken.

Blood tests

Certain blood tests may be used to help find pancreatic cancer or to help decide on treatment options. High blood levels of the tumor markers CA 19-9 and CEA (carcinoembryonic antigen) may point to exocrine pancreatic cancer, but these tests aren’t always accurate.

Other blood tests can help tell about a patient’s general state of health (such as liver, kidney, and bone marrow function). These tests can also help the doctor decide if a patient will be able to go through the stress of a major operation.


During a biopsy a sample of tissue from the tumor is removed and looked at under a microscope to see if there are cancer cells. There are several types of biopsies that might be done. In the past, a biopsy was often done as part of surgery. Now, the FNA (fine needle aspiration) biopsy is most often used. For this test, the doctor puts a thin needle through the skin and into the pancreas to remove small pieces of tissue. This may be done while the doctor is looking at the tumor by CT or ultrasound. Another option is to use endoscopic ultrasound to guide the needle through the wall of the intestine into the tumor. This test can be done while you are awake. It rarely causes side effects.

Tumors can also be biopsied during ERCP using a small brush that is put through the tube.

Another way to get biopsy samples is by doing “keyhole surgery” (laparoscopy). For this you are given drugs to make you sleep. Then the surgeon makes small cuts and puts small, thin, telescope-like instruments into the belly. One of these instruments is connected to a video screen. The surgeon can look at your insides, see how big the tumor is, and see if it has spread. Biopsy samples can also be taken.

Most doctors who treat people with pancreatic cancer try to avoid surgery unless it looks like an operation might be able to remove all of the cancer. Even so, there are times when the doctor starts an operation only to find that the cancer has spread too far to be completely removed. In these cases, the doctor just takes a sample of the tumor and the rest of the operation is stopped.

See Testing Biopsy and Cytology Specimens for Cancer to learn more about different types of biopsies, how the tissue is tested in the lab, and what the results will tell you. You can find it on our Web site, or call us for a free copy.


Staging for pancreatic cancer

Staging is the process of finding out how widespread the cancer is and whether it has spread to other parts of the body. This is very important because the treatment and the outlook for the patient depend on the stage of the cancer. The tests described in the section “How is pancreatic cancer found?” are used to decide the stage of the cancer.

In the AJCC (American Joint Committee on Cancer) staging system, stages of exocrine pancreatic cancer are labeled using Roman numerals I through IV (1 – 4). As a rule, the lower the number, the less the cancer has spread. A higher number, such as stage IV (4), means a more advanced cancer.

Other factors

Although not part of the AJCC staging system, some other factors are also important. The grade of the cancer (whether the cells look more or less normal under the microscope) is sometimes listed on a scale from G1 to G4, with G1 cancers looking the most like normal cells and having the best outlook.

For patients who have surgery, the extent of the resection — whether or not all of the tumor is removed — is also important with regard to outlook. This is sometimes listed on a scale from R0 (where all of tumor that can be seen has been removed) to R2 (where some tumor could not be removed).


Terms used to describe pancreatic cancer

From a practical standpoint, how far the cancer has spread often can’t be known for sure without surgery. That’s why doctors often use a simpler staging system which divides cancers into groups based on whether or not it is likely they can be removed by surgery. These groups are listed below.

Resectable: The cancer is mostly in the pancreas and all of it can be removed.

Locally advanced (unresectable): The cancer has spread to tissue and blood vessels around the pancreas but not to distant organs. The doctor cannot remove all of the cancer. Surgery would be done only to relieve symptoms or other problems.

Metastatic: The cancer has spread to distant organs. Surgery would be done only to relieve symptoms or other problems.


Survival rates for pancreatic cancer

Some people with cancer may want to know the survival rates for their type of cancer. Others may not find the numbers helpful, or may even not want to know them. Whether or not you want to read about survival rates is up to you. If you decide you do not want to know them, stop reading here and skip to the next section.

The 5-year survival rate refers to the percentage of patients who live at least 5 years after their cancer was found. Also, people with pancreatic cancer can die of other things. These rates, called observed survival rates, don’t take that into account.

In order to get 5-year survival rates, doctors have to look at people who were treated at least 5 years ago. Improvements in treatment since then may result in a better outlook for people now being found with cancer of the pancreas.

  • Stage
  • 5-year observed survival
  • Stage IA:
  • 14%
  • Stage IB
  • 12%
  • Stage IIA
  • 7%
  • Stage IIB
  • 5%
  • Stage III
  • 3%
  • Stage IV
  • 1%

These numbers provide an overall picture, but keep in mind that every person’s situation is unique and the statistics can’t predict exactly what will happen in your case. Talk with your cancer care team if you have questions about your own chances of a cure, or how long you might survive your cancer. They know your situation best.


How is pancreatic cancer treated?

This information represents the views of the doctors and nurses serving on the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Information Database Editorial Board. These views are based on their interpretation of studies published in medical journals, as well as their own professional experience.

The treatment information in this document is not official policy of the Society and is not intended as medical advice to replace the expertise and judgment of your cancer care team. It is intended to help you and your family make informed decisions, together with your doctor.

Your doctor may have reasons for suggesting a treatment plan different from these general treatment options. Don’t hesitate to ask him or her questions about your treatment options.

About treatment

Based on the type and stage of your pancreatic cancer, you may need more than one type of treatment. Doctors on your cancer treatment team may include:

  • A surgeon: a doctor who uses surgery to treat cancers or other problems
  • An endocrinologist: a doctor who treats diseases in glands that produce hormones
  • A radiation oncologist: a doctor who uses radiation to treat cancer
  • A medical oncologist: a doctor who uses chemotherapy and other medicines to treat cancer

Many other experts may be involved in your care as well; these could include nurse practitioners, nurses, psychologists, social workers, and others.

The main types of treatment for pancreatic cancer are:

Some of these treatments may be combined. Pain control is also an important part of treatment for many patients.

It is important to discuss all of your treatment options, including their goals and possible side effects, with your doctors to help make the decision that best fits your needs. It’s also very important to ask questions if there is anything you’re not sure about. You can find some good questions to ask in the section, “What should you ask your doctor about pancreatic cancer?


Surgery for pancreatic cancer

There are 2 types of surgery used for cancer of the pancreas:

  • Potentially curative surgery is used when tests suggest that it looks like all the cancer can be removed.
  • Palliative surgery may be done if tests show that the tumor is too widespread to be completely removed. Surgery is done to relieve symptoms or to prevent certain problems like blockage of the bile ducts or the intestine by the cancer.

Studies have shown that removing only part of the cancer does not help patients to live longer. Pancreatic cancer surgery is one of the hardest operations a surgeon can do. It is also one of hardest for patients to have. There may be problems, and it can take many weeks for patients to recover. Patients need to weigh the pros and cons of such surgery carefully.

Surgery to try to cure the cancer (potentially curative surgery)

The type of surgery most often done if it looks like the cancer can be cured is called the Whipple procedure. It is the most common type of surgery for cancer of the pancreas. In this surgery, parts of the pancreas are removed along with parts of the stomach and small intestine, the gallbladder, part of the common bile duct, and some nearby lymph nodes. This is a very complex operation. It is best done by a surgeon who has done it many times in a hospital that does at least 20 Whipple procedures per year. This surgery is a major operation that carries a fairly high risk of complications that may be fatal.

Only a very few number of cancers of the pancreas (about 1 out of 10) appear to be contained entirely within the pancreas when they are found. Only about half of these are found to be really only in the pancreas (and able to be removed completely) when surgery is done. But even when it looks like the cancer hasn’t spread, a small number of cancer cells may already have spread to other parts of the body. These cells can later grow into new tumors and cause many problems.

The spleen helps the body fight infections, so having it removed means a higher risk of certain infections. To help with this, doctors advise that patients get certain vaccines before a Whipple procedure.

Surgery to remove just part of the pancreas may be an option for a few patients with pancreatic cancer. For more information, see “Surgery for pancreatic cancer” in our document Pancreatic Cancer.

Palliative surgery

Because pancreatic cancer can progress quickly, most doctors do not advise surgery to relieve symptoms. Sometimes surgery may be tried in the hope of curing the patient, but during the operation the surgeon discovers this is not possible. In this case, the surgeon may continue the operation as a palliative procedure to relieve or prevent symptoms. For example, surgery can be used to relieve blockage of the bile duct. When this duct is blocked, it can cause pain and problems with digestion.

There are 2 options to relieve a bile duct blockage. One is to re-route the flow of bile from the common bile duct into the small intestine. This is known as bypass surgery. This requires a large cut (incision) and it may take weeks for the patient to recover. An advantage is that during the surgery, the doctor may be able to cut the nerves leading to the pancreas. This will reduce or get rid of any pain for the patient. Also, the doctor might re-route the stomach connection to the small intestine with the goal of preventing problems in the future.

A second way to treat bile duct blockage is to use metal tubes called stents to keep the bile duct open. The doctor puts the stents in using a thin, flexible tube called an endoscope. Over time the stents may get clogged and need to be replaced. Bigger stents may be used to keep the small intestine open, too. In most cases, of the use of stents has replaced palliative bypass surgery to relieve bile duct blockage.


Ablative methods for pancreatic cancer

Other types of surgery, called ablative techniques, may be used to treat areas of spread (metastases) from pancreatic cancer. Ablation is treatment that removes or destroys all or part of a cancer This is an option when only a few metastases are present. By treating the metastases, symptoms can improve and the patient may live longer.

Radiofrequency ablation: In radiofrequency ablation (RFA) a probe (like a needle) is put into the tumor. Then radio waves are used to heat and destroy tissues, such as areas of cancer spread.

Microwave thermotherapy: This approach is much like RFA except that microwaves are used to heat and destroy the cancer.

Cryosurgery: In cryosurgery, a probe is put right into the tumor to freeze the tissue with liquid nitrogen or liquid carbon dioxide. The area being frozen is destroyed. This method is also known as cryoablation.

Embolization: For an embolization, a catheter is used to find the blood vessel feeding the tumor. Then a substance is put into the blood vessel, cutting off the blood supply to the tumor. This kills the tumor. The substance used can be tiny beads (called microspheres). Sometimes the beads used are radioactive. The catheter can also be used to put in chemotherapy drugs. This is called chemoembolization.


Radiation therapy for pancreatic cancer

Radiation therapy is treatment with high energy rays (like x-rays) to kill cancer cells or shrink tumors. Having radiation is much like getting a regular x-ray but it takes longer. Treatment is usually given 5 times a week for several weeks or months. Sometimes the radiation is given before surgery, sometimes after. Radiation (along with chemotherapy) can also be used for patients whose tumors are too widespread to be removed by surgery.

Side effects of radiation therapy could include skin changes that look like sunburn, upset stomach, loose bowels, poor appetite, weight loss, or tiredness. Radiation can also lower blood counts and can increase the risk of serious infection.

Often side effects go away over time after treatment ends. Talk with your doctor if you have side effects because there are ways to relieve them.

Learn more about radiation therapy in our document Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.


Chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer

Chemotherapy (chemo) is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Usually the drugs are given into a vein or are taken as a pill. Once the drugs enter the bloodstream, they go throughout the body. This makes chemo useful for cancer that has spread beyond the place where it started.

Chemo may be used at any stage of pancreatic cancer. It is can be used for people with advanced cancer. Chemo may also be used after the cancer has been removed to try to kill any cancer cells that may have been left behind. This type of treatment is called adjuvant treatment. It may help stop the cancer from coming back later. In people who are going to have surgery, chemo and radiation may be given to shrink the tumor ahead of time. This is known as neoadjuvant treatment.

Chemo can cause side effects. These side effects will depend on the type of drugs given, the amount taken, and how long treatment lasts.

Common short-term side effects might include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Diarrhea

Because chemo can damage the bone marrow (where new blood cells are made) blood cell counts might become low. This can result in:

  • Increased risk of infection (from a shortage of white blood cells)
  • Bleeding or bruising after minor cuts (from a shortage of platelets)
  • Tiredness (fatigue) (from too few red blood cells)

Most side effects go away once treatment is over. Anyone who has problems with side effects should talk with their doctor or nurse, as there are often ways to help.


Targeted therapy for pancreatic cancer

Newer drugs that target certain parts of cancer cells are now being studied. These drugs work in a different way from regular chemotherapy (chemo) drugs and they often have fewer side effects. A drug called erlotinib (Tarceva®) has helped some patients with advanced pancreatic cancer. It is taken as a pill. When combined with the chemo drug gemcitabine (Gemzar®) it has been shown to be slightly better than gemcitabine alone. Common side effects of this drug can include an acne-like rash, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and feeling tired.


Pain control for pancreatic cancer

Pain can be a real problem for patients with this cancer. But it is possible to relieve the pain with medicines or, sometimes, with surgery. You should tell your doctor or nurse about any pain you have. Pain is easier to treat if the treatment is started when you first have it. Don’t wait until the pain is so bad that you can’t stand it. You should not be afraid to use the pain relief treatments offered. For pain treatment to work right, the medicine needs to be taken on a regular schedule, not just when the pain gets bad. There are long-acting forms of morphine and other drugs that only need to be taken once or twice a day.

There are other ways to relieve pain from pancreatic cancer. This can be done with a combination of medicines or in some cases, endoscopy or surgery. For instance, cutting some of the nerves that carry pain sensations or injecting alcohol into these nerves can provide relief. Often, if the cancer is being removed, these nerves will be cut or treated during the same operation. Chemotherapy and/or radiation to the pancreas can also sometimes relieve pain by shrinking the size of the cancer.

For more detailed information on pain and what can be done about it, see our document, Pain Control: A Guide for Those With Cancer and Their Loved Ones. A list of some other documents that can be helpful on this topic can be found in the “More information about pancreatic cancer” section.


Clinical trials for pancreatic cancer

You may have had to make a lot of decisions since you’ve been told you have cancer. One of the most important decisions you will make is deciding which treatment is best for you. You may have heard about clinical trials being done for your type of cancer. Or maybe someone on your health care team has mentioned a clinical trial to you.

Clinical trials are carefully controlled research studies that are done with patients who volunteer for them. They are done to get a closer look at promising new treatments or procedures.

If you would like to take part in a clinical trial, you should start by asking your doctor if your clinic or hospital conducts clinical trials. You can also call our clinical trials matching service for a list of clinical trials that meet your medical needs. You can reach this service at 1-800-303-5691 or on our Web site at www.cancer.org/clinicaltrials. You can also get a list of current clinical trials by calling the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) or by visiting the NCI clinical trials Web site at www.cancer.gov/clinicaltrials.

There are requirements you must meet to take part in any clinical trial. If you do qualify for a clinical trial, it is up to you whether or not to enter (enroll in) it.

Clinical trials are one way to get state-of-the art cancer treatment. They are the only way for doctors to learn better methods to treat cancer. Still, they are not right for everyone.

You can get a lot more information on clinical trials in our document called Clinical Trials: What You Need to Know. You can read it on our Web site or call us and have it sent to you.


Complementary and alternative therapies for pancreatic cancer

When you have cancer you are likely to hear about ways to treat your cancer or relieve symptoms that your doctor hasn’t mentioned. Everyone from friends and family to Internet groups and Web sites may offer ideas for what might help you. These methods can include vitamins, herbs, and special diets, or other methods such as acupuncture or massage, to name a few.

What are complementary and alternative therapies?

It can be confusing because not everyone uses these terms the same way, and they are used to refer to many different methods. We use complementary to refer to treatments that are used along with your regular medical care. Alternative treatments are used instead of a doctor’s medical treatment.

Complementary methods: Most complementary treatment methods are not offered as cures for cancer. Mainly, they are used to help you feel better. Some examples of methods that are used along with regular treatment are meditation to reduce stress, acupuncture to help relieve pain, or peppermint tea to relieve nausea. Some complementary methods are known to help, while others have not been tested. Some have been proven not to be helpful, and a few are even harmful.

Alternative treatments: Alternative treatments may be offered as cancer cures. These treatments have not been proven safe and effective in clinical trials. Some of these methods may be harmful, or have life-threatening side effects. But the biggest danger in most cases is that you may lose the chance to be helped by standard medical treatment. Delays or interruptions in your medical treatments may give the cancer more time to grow and make it less likely that treatment will help.

Finding out more

It is easy to see why people with cancer think about alternative methods. You want to do all you can to fight the cancer, and the idea of a treatment with few or no side effects sounds great. Sometimes medical treatments like chemotherapy can be hard to take, or they may no longer be working. But the truth is that most of these alternative methods have not been tested and proven to work in treating cancer.

As you think about your options, here are 3 important steps you can take:

  • Look for “red flags” that suggest fraud. Does the method promise to cure all or most cancers? Are you told not to have regular medical treatments? Is the treatment a “secret” that requires you to visit certain providers or travel to another country?
  • Talk to your doctor or nurse about any method you are thinking of using.
  • Contact us at 1-800-227-2345 to learn more about complementary and alternative methods in general and to find out about the specific methods you are looking at. You can also check them out in the Complementary and Alternative Medicine section of our Web site

The choice is yours

Decisions about how to treat or manage your cancer are always yours to make. If you want to use a non-standard treatment, learn all you can about the method and talk to your doctor about it. With good information and the support of your health care team, you may be able to safely use the methods that can help you while avoiding those that could be harmful.


What are some questions I can ask my doctor about pancreatic cancer?

As you cope with cancer and cancer treatment, you need to have honest, open talks with your doctor. Feel free to ask any question that’s on your mind, no matter how small it might seem. Here are some questions you might want to ask. Be sure to add your own questions as you think of them. Nurses, social workers, and other members of the treatment team may also be able to answer many of your questions.

  • Would you please write down the exact kind of cancer I have?
  • Has my cancer spread beyond the pancreas?
  • What is the stage of my cancer and what does that mean in my case?
  • What treatment choices do I have?
  • What do you recommend and why?
  • What is the goal of the treatment you recommend?
  • What risks or side effects are there for this treatment?
  • How would treatment affect my daily life?
  • How is treatment likely to help in my case?
  • How much experience do you have with this type of treatment?
  • How experienced is the hospital in treating people with this cancer?
  • Should I be referred to a cancer center for treatment?
  • Should I think about taking part in a clinical trial?
  • Based on what you’ve learned about my cancer, how long do you think I’ll survive?
  • What should I do to be ready for treatment?


Moving on after treatment for pancreatic cancer

For some people with pancreatic cancer, treatment may remove or destroy the cancer. Completing treatment can be both stressful and exciting. You will be relieved to finish treatment, yet it is hard not to worry about cancer coming back. (When cancer returns, it is called recurrence.) This is a very common concern among those who have had cancer.

It may take a while before your fears lessen. But it may help to know that many cancer survivors have learned to live with this uncertainty and are living full lives. Our document, Living With Uncertainty: The Fear of Cancer Recurrence, gives more detailed information on this and can be read online. You can also call us to have a free copy sent to you.

For most people with pancreatic cancer, the cancer never goes away completely. These people may get regular treatments with chemotherapy, radiation, or other treatments to try to help keep the cancer in check. Learning to live with cancer that does not go away can be hard and very stressful. It has its own type of uncertainty. Our document, When Cancer Doesn’t Go Away, talks more about this (see the section called “More information about pancreatic cancer”). You can read it online or you can call us to have a free copy sent to you.

Follow-up care

After your treatment is over, ongoing follow-up is very important. During these visits, your doctors will ask about symptoms, do physical exams and may order blood tests or imaging studies (like CT scans or MRIs). Follow-up is needed to watch for treatment side effects and to check for cancer that has come back or spread.

Almost any cancer treatment can have side effects. Some may last for a few weeks or months, but others can be permanent. Please tell your cancer care team about any symptoms or side effects that bother you so they can help you manage them. Use this time to ask your health care team questions and discuss any concerns you might have.

After your cancer treatment is finished, you will probably need to still see your cancer doctor for many years. So, ask what kind of follow-up schedule you can expect.

It is also important to keep health insurance. While you hope your cancer won’t come back, it could happen. If it does, you don’t want to have to worry about paying for treatment. Should your cancer come back, our document When Your Cancer Comes Back: Cancer Recurrence helps you manage and cope with this phase of your treatment. You can read it online or call us for a free copy.


Often people with cancer of the pancreas don’t feel like eating. They may lose weight and feel weak. All patients treated with surgery (the Whipple procedure) lose weight and have trouble eating, but other treatments or even just the cancer itself can also cause these problems. If they can, people are often told to try to eat high-energy foods. Many patients need to take pancreas enzymes in pill form to help digest food. In a few cases the doctors may put a feeding tube into the stomach or intestine to improve nutrition and energy levels.

Seeing a new doctor

At some point after your cancer is found and treated, you may find yourself in the office of a new doctor who does not know anything about your cancer. It is important that you be able to give your new doctor the exact details of your diagnosis and treatment. Make sure you have this information handy:

  • A copy of your pathology report from any biopsy or surgery
  • If you had surgery, a copy of your operative report
  • If you were in the hospital, a copy of the discharge summary that the doctor wrote when you were sent home from the hospital
  • If you had radiation treatment, a summary of the type and dose of radiation and when and where it was given
  • If you had chemotherapy, targeted therapies, or other drug treatments, a list of your drugs, drug doses, and when you took them
  • Copies of your lab results and imaging tests (these can often be put on a DVD).

The doctor may want copies of this information for his records, but always keep copies for yourself.


Lifestyle changes after pancreatic cancer

Having cancer and dealing with treatment can take a lot of time and energy, but it can also be a time to look at your life in new ways. Maybe you are thinking about how to improve your health over the long term.

Make healthier choices

You can’t change the fact that you have had cancer. What you can change is how you live the rest of your life — making choices to help you stay healthy and feel as well as you can. This can be a time to look at your life in new ways. Maybe you are thinking about how to improve your health over the long term. Some people even start during cancer treatment.

You can start by working on those things that worry you most. Get help with those that are harder for you. For instance, if you are thinking about quitting smoking and need help, call us at 1-800-227-2345.

Eating better

Eating right can be hard for anyone, but it can get even tougher during and after cancer treatment. Treatment may change your sense of taste and surgery may have altered your digestion. Nausea can be a problem. You may not feel like eating and lose weight when you don’t want to. All of these things can be very frustrating.

If treatment caused weight changes or eating or taste problems, do the best you can and keep in mind that these problems can get better over time. You may find it helps to eat small portions every 2 to 3 hours until you feel better. You may also want to ask your cancer team about seeing a dietitian, an expert in nutrition who can give you ideas on how to deal with these treatment side effects.

One of the best things you can do after cancer treatment is put healthy eating habits into place. You may be surprised at the long-term benefits of some simple changes, like increasing the variety of healthy foods you eat. Getting to and staying at a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet, and limiting your alcohol intake may lower your risk for a number of types of cancer, as well as having many other health benefits.

Rest, fatigue and exercise

Feeling tired (fatigue) is a very common problem during and after cancer treatment. This is not a normal type of tiredness but a bone-weary exhaustion that doesn’t get better with rest. For some people, fatigue lasts a long time after treatment and can keep them from staying active. But exercise can actually help reduce fatigue and the sense of depression that sometimes comes with feeling so tired.

If you are very tired, though, you will need to balance activity with rest. It is OK to rest when you need to.

If you were very ill or weren’t able to do much during treatment, it is normal that your fitness, staying power, and muscle strength declined. You need to find an exercise plan that fits your own needs. If you haven’t exercised in a few years, you will have to start slowly — maybe just by taking short walks. Talk with your health care team before starting. Get their input on your exercise plans. Then try to get an exercise buddy so that you’re not doing it alone.

For more information on fatigue and other treatment side effects, please see the “More information about pancreatic cancer” section.

Exercise can improve your physical and emotional health.

  • It improves your cardiovascular (heart and circulation) fitness.
  • It makes your muscles stronger.
  • It reduces fatigue and helps you have more energy
  • It can help lower anxiety and depression.
  • It can make you feel happier.
  • It helps you feel better about yourself

Long term, we know that getting regular physical activity plays a role in helping to lower the risk of some cancers, as well as having other health benefits.


How does having pancreatic cancer affect your emotional health?

Once your treatment ends, you may be surprised by the flood of emotions you go through. This happens to a lot of people. You may find that you think about the effect of your cancer on things like your family, friends, and career. Money may be a concern as the medical bills pile up. Or you may begin to think about the changes that cancer has brought to your relationship with your spouse or partner. Unexpected issues may also cause concern — for instance, as you get better and need fewer doctor visits, you will see your health care team less often. This can be hard for some people.

This is a good time to look for emotional and social support. You need people you can turn to. Support can come in many forms: family, friends, cancer support groups, church or spiritual groups, online support communities, or private counselors.

The cancer journey can feel very lonely. You don’t need to go it alone. Your friends and family may feel shut out if you decide not include them. Let them in — and let in anyone else who you feel may help. If you aren’t sure who can help, call your American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 and we can put you in touch with a group or resource that may work for you.


If treatment for pancreatic cancer stops working

When a person has had many different treatments and the cancer has not been cured, over time the cancer tends to resist all treatment. At this time you may have to weigh the possible benefits of a new treatment against the downsides, like treatment side effects and clinic visits.

This is likely to be the hardest time in your battle with cancer — when you have tried everything within reason and it’s just not working anymore. Your doctor may offer you new treatment, but you will need to talk about whether the treatment is likely to improve your health or change your outlook for survival.

No matter what you decide to do, it is important for you to feel as good as possible. Make sure you are asking for and getting treatment for pain, nausea, or any other problems you may have. This type of treatment is called palliative treatment. It helps relieve symptoms but is not meant to cure the cancer.

At some point you may want to think about hospice care. Most of the time it is given at home. Your cancer may be causing symptoms or problems that need to be treated. Hospice focuses on your comfort. You should know that having hospice care doesn’t mean you can’t have treatment for the problems caused by your cancer or other health issues. It just means that the purpose of your care is to help you live life as fully as possible and to feel as well as you can.

You can learn more about hospice and this phase of cancer in our documents called Hospice Care and Nearing the End of Life. They can be read online, or call us to have free copies mailed to you.

Staying hopeful is important, too. Your hope for a cure may not be as bright, but there is still hope for good times with family and friends—- times that are filled with joy and meaning. Pausing at this time in your cancer treatment gives you a chance to focus on the most important things in your life. Now is the time to do some things you’ve always wanted to do and to stop doing the things you no longer want to do. Though the cancer may be beyond your control, there are still choices you can make.


What`s new in pancreatic cancer research?

Research into the causes and treatment of pancreatic cancer is going on in many medical centers around the world.

Genetics and finding cancer early

Scientists are learning more about some of the changes in DNA that cause cells to become cancer. In some families an inherited risk increases the chance that members will have pancreatic cancer.

Researchers have learned that pancreatic cancer does not form suddenly. It develops over many years in a series of steps. In the early steps there are changes in a small number of genes, and the duct cells of the pancreas do not look very abnormal. In later steps there are greater changes in several genes and the duct cells look more abnormal.

This information is being used to develop tests for finding acquired (not inherited) genetic changes in pancreatic cancer pre-cancerous conditions

For now, imaging tests like endoscopic ultrasound (EUS), ERCP, and genetic tests for changes in certain genes are options for people with a strong family history of pancreatic cancer. But these tests are not people at normal risk who have no symptoms.


The major focus of much research is on finding better treatments for pancreatic cancer.

Chemotherapy: Many clinical trials are going on to test new ways to combine chemo drugs. Other studies are testing the best ways to combine chemo with radiation or other treatments.

Targeted therapies: As researchers have learned more about what makes pancreatic cancer cells different from normal cells, they have started to develop newer drugs that should be able to attack only the cancer cells. These “targeted therapies” may be another option for treating pancreatic cancer. They may prove to be useful along with, or instead of, current treatments. For the most part, they seem to have fewer side effects than the usual chemo drugs.

Growth factor inhibitors: Many types of cancer cells have certain molecules on their surface that help them to grow. These molecules are called growth factor receptors. Several drugs that target growth factor receptors are now being studied. One drug, erlotinib (Tarceva), is already approved for use along with gemcitabine.

Anti-angiogenesis factors: All cancers depend on the growth of new blood vessels (this is called angiogenesis) to nourish the cells. New drugs that can block this growth and thus starve the tumor are being studied in clinical trials.

Immune therapy: Immune therapies attempt to boost a person’s immune system to attack cancer cells. Some studies have shown promise for treating pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer vaccines are also being studied. These vaccines are meant to help a person’s own immune system to attack the cancer cells. This might cause tumors to shrink or help prevent them from coming back after surgery or other treatment.

Another form of immune therapy involves using man-made monoclonal antibodies. Monoclonal antibodies are designed to lock onto specific antigens. Antigens are substances which can be recognized by the immune system. Certain kinds are found on cancer cells. Toxins or radioactive atoms can be attached to these antibodies, which bring them right to the cancer cells. The hope is that the antibodies will damage the cancer cells while leaving normal cells alone. These treatments are only being used in clinical trials at this time.

Radiation therapy: Some current studies are looking at different ways to give radiation to treat exocrine pancreas cancer. One study is looking at the effect of intraoperative radiation therapy, in which a single large dose of radiation is given to the pancreas at the time of surgery (in the operating room). Another study is looking at using a special type of radiation called proton beam radiation with chemo.

Matching the treatment to the person (called individualization of therapy): Some drugs seem to work better if certain types of gene changes can be found in the patient’s tumor. Finding markers that may predict how well a drug will work before it is given is an important area of research in pancreatic and other types of cancer.


More information about pancreatic cancer

American Cancer Society information

Here is more information you might find helpful. You also can order free copies of our documents from our toll-free number, 1-800-227-2345, or read them on our Web site, www.cancer.org.

Dealing with diagnosis and treatment

Pancreatic Cancer Detailed Guide (also in Spanish)

Health Professionals Associated With Cancer Care

Talking With Your Doctor (also in Spanish)

After Diagnosis: A Guide for Patients and Families (also in Spanish)

Coping With Cancer in Everyday Life (also in Spanish)

Nutrition for the Person With Cancer During Treatment: A Guide for Patients and Families (also in Spanish)

Family and caregiver concerns

Talking With Friends and Relatives About Your Cancer (also in Spanish)

Helping Children When A Family Member Has Cancer: Dealing With Diagnosis (also in Spanish)

What It Takes to Be a Caregiver

Insurance and financial issues

In Treatment: Financial Guidance for Cancer Survivors and Their Families (also in Spanish)

Health Insurance and Financial Assistance for the Cancer Patient (also in Spanish)

More on cancer treatments

Understanding Cancer Surgery: A Guide for Patients and Families (also in Spanish)

Understanding Chemotherapy: A Guide for Patients and Families (also in Spanish)

Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families (also in Spanish)

Targeted Therapy

Cancer treatment side effects

Caring for the Patient With Cancer at Home: A Guide for Patients and Families (also in Spanish)

Distress in People With Cancer

Anxiety, Fear, and Depression

Nausea and Vomiting

Pain Control: A Guide for Those With Cancer and Their Loved Ones (also in Spanish)

Get Relief From Cancer Pain

Pain Diary

Anemia in People With Cancer

Fatigue in People With Cancer

Peripheral Neuropathy Caused By Chemotherapy

Your American Cancer Society also has books that you might find helpful. Call us at 1-800-227-2345 or visit our bookstore online at cancer.org/bookstore to find out about costs or to place an order.

National organizations and Web sites*

Along with the American Cancer Society, other sources of information and support include:

National Cancer Institute
Toll-free number: 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237)
Web site: www.cancer.gov

  • Their “Cancer Information Service” offers a wide variety of free, accurate, up-to-date information about cancer to patients, their families, and the general public; also can help people find clinical trials in their area

Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, Inc.
Toll-free number: 1-877-272-6226
Web site: www.pancan.org

  • Has a “Patient and Liaison Services” (PALS) program which offers information about pancreatic cancer, treatment options, diet and nutrition, specialists and clinical trials specific to pancreatic cancer, and more; also has the PALS Survivor and Caregiver Network through which newly-diagnosed people and families are matched with volunteer survivors and caregivers

Confronting Pancreatic Cancer (Pancreatica)
Web site: www.pancreatica.org

  • For practical, impartial, understandable information about pancreatic cancer; also has a free telephone information and counseling line at 1-800-525-377 and another free telephone service that will put you in contact with a fellow survivor at 1-800-433-0464

Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research
Telephone: 310-473-5121
Web site: www.pancreatic.org

  • Provides a variety of types of information, resources, and support to pancreatic cancer patients and their families, including referrals for treatment facilities, second opinions, and doctors across the US

The Lustgarten Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research
Toll-free number: 1-866-789-1000
Web site: www.lustgarten.org

  • Offers a free patient handbook called “Understanding Pancreatic Cancer,” newsletters, and a free quarterly “Ask an Expert” patient information series which includes updates on topics of interest to those with pancreatic cancer

*Inclusion on this list does not imply endorsement by the American Cancer Society.

No matter who you are, we can help. Contact us anytime, day or night, for information and support. Call us at 1-800-227-2345.