Oncology Edition-What is the treatment for resectable pancreatic cancer?

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If a pancreatic cancer is found at an early stage (stage I and stage II) and is contained locally within or around the pancreas, surgery may be recommended (resectable pancreatic cancer). Surgery is the only potentially curative treatment for pancreatic cancer. The surgical procedure most commonly performed to remove a pancreatic cancer is a Whipple procedure (pancreatoduodenectomy). It often comprises removal of a portion of the stomach, the duodenum (the first part of the small intestine), pancreas, bile ducts, lymph nodes, and gallbladder. It is important to be evaluated at a hospital with lots of experience performing pancreatic cancer surgery because the operation is a big one and evidence shows that experienced surgeons better select people who can get through the surgery safely and also better judge who will most likely benefit from the operation. In experienced hands, mortality from the surgery itself is less than 4%.

After the Whipple surgery, patients typically spend about one week in the hospital recovering from the operation. Complications from the surgery can include blood loss (anemia), leakage from the reconnected intestines or ducts, or slow return of bowel function. Recovery to presurgical health often can take several months.

After patients recover from a Whipple procedure for pancreatic cancer, treatment to reduce the risk of the cancer returning is a standard recommendation. This treatment, referred to as “adjuvant therapy (chemotherapy),” has proven to lower the risk of recurrent cancer. Typically six months of adjuvant chemotherapy is recommended, sometimes with radiation incorporated into the treatment plan.

Unfortunately, only about 20 people out of 100 diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are found to have a tumor amenable to surgical resection. The rest have tumors that are too locally advanced to completely remove or have metastatic spread at the time of diagnosis. Even among patients whose cancers are amenable to surgery, only 20% live five years. Most pancreatic cancer patients do not qualify for a pancreas transplant because of their advanced disease; most pancreas transplants are done in patients with diabetes that results from the removal of the endocrine portion of the pancreas.

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