Who is eligible for surgery?
Eligibility is determined by the size and location of the primary tumor, the involvement of local lymph nodes and blood vessels and the presence of distant metastases. Although 20 percent of pancreatic cancer patients may be eligible for surgery, data shows that up to half of those patients are told they are ineligible. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network strongly recommends you see a surgeon who performs a high volume of pancreatic surgeries (more than 15 per year) to determine eligibility.
If you are eligible for surgery, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network strongly recommends calling PanCAN Patient Services to discuss our Know Your Tumor® precision medicine service. Know Your Tumor may help eligible patients understand what treatment will work best for future treatment decisions.
What are the different types of pancreatic surgeries?
Different types of surgery are performed depending on the location of the tumor within the pancreas:
Whipple procedure (pancreaticoduodenectomy) – The Whipple procedure is the most commonly performed surgery to remove tumors in the pancreas, and is typically performed if a tumor is in the head of the pancreas and meets other criteria for resection. In a standard procedure, the surgeon removes the head of the pancreas, the gallbladder, the duodenum, a small portion of the stomach called the antrum along with the stomach valve and surrounding lymph nodes. This surgery typically takes 5-7 hours to perform.
Distal pancreatectomy – A distal pancreatectomy is performed if a tumor is in the body or tail portion of the pancreas. In this procedure, the surgeon removes the body and tail of the pancreas, and will often remove the spleen as well.
Total pancreatectomy – A total pancreatectomy is performed when the tumor is situated in a way that requires the entire pancreas to be removed, or when there are multiple tumors spread throughout the pancreas. Because the entire pancreas is removed in a total pancreatectomy, the person will be diabetic after surgery and must use insulin to control their blood sugar levels.
When is surgery available/used?
Determining a patient’s eligibility for surgery is not always easy. Even sophisticated imaging tests may not provide a perfect picture of the tumor. In general, a pancreatic tumor is considered resectable if it has not spread beyond the pancreas and does not involve major arteries. If veins are involved, a qualified surgeon may be able to perform a vein resection.
In some cases, during surgery, the surgeon will find that the cancer has spread, and the operation will be ended. If surgery to remove the tumor is not possible, other interventions may be performed to help alleviate blockages or manage other symptoms.
Are surgeries for pancreatic cancer usually given with other treatments?
Sometimes treatment is given before surgery is performed to remove a pancreatic tumor. This treatment, called neoadjuvant therapy, generally involves chemotherapy, radiation therapy or both. The goal of neoadjuvant treatment is to reduce the size of the tumor so that it is more easily removed during surgery. If blood vessels, such as veins and arteries, are affected by the tumor, neoadjuvant therapy may improve the chances for a complete surgical removal.
Often, adjuvant therapy, or treatment that is given after the surgical removal of all or part of the pancreatic tumor, is given. After surgery, patients are at risk for recurrence, or reappearance, of the cancer. Recurrence can occur when a microscopic amount of the cancer spreads prior to the surgery. The aim of adjuvant therapy is to kill microscopic cancer cells that may still be present after surgery, thereby preventing recurrence of a tumor.
Clinical trials may be available for pancreatic cancer patients seeking adjuvant therapy. When considering participation in an adjuvant therapy clinical trial, it is important to note that usually adjuvant therapy clinical trials limit the length of time after surgery that patients can wait before participating in the trial. Typically, patients must start treatment on an adjuvant therapy clinical trial within two to three months after surgery. Therefore, patients considering participation in an adjuvant clinical trial should learn about their options either before surgery or immediately following.
Pancreatic cancer patients who participate in clinical research have better outcomes. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network strongly recommends clinical trials at diagnosis and during every treatment decision. We maintain the most comprehensive and up-to-date database of pancreatic cancer clinical trials available in the U.S. Start your own search using our Clinical Trial Finder.
How can I find the best surgeon?
Pancreatic surgery is very complicated, especially the most common surgery, the Whipple procedure. Additionally, about 30 to 50 percent of patients who are eligible for surgery are told they are ineligible. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network strongly recommends you see a surgeon who performs a high volume of pancreatic surgeries (more than 15 per year) to determine eligibility. Studies show that patients who undergo pancreatic surgery performed by an experienced surgeon have fewer complications and better outcomes. When finding a surgeon, it is encouraged to ask how many pancreatic surgeries he or she performs each year. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s PanCAN Patient Services Case Managers can provide patients and families with a listing of institutions and doctors who perform a high volume of pancreatic surgeries. Case Managers can also provide research articles supporting the benefits of getting pancreatic surgery at a high-volume institution.
How will I feel after undergoing pancreatic surgery?
After pancreatic surgery, it can take a patient anywhere from a few months to a year to feel relatively “normal” again. It takes time for the digestive system to start working again, and some patients find that they must make permanent changes in their diet to ease symptoms such as diarrhea, gas and stomach pain. Contact PanCAN Patient Services for more information and resources on postoperative nutritional care, including pancreatic enzyme use.
What are palliative surgeries for pancreatic cancer?
Palliative procedures are performed to alleviate (palliate) symptoms. They do not involve the complete removal of the tumor. Palliative procedures may relieve symptoms of jaundice, pain, nausea and vomiting that are caused by blockage of the bile duct and/or duodenum. The most common palliative procedures for pancreatic cancer are biliary bypass surgery, gastric bypass surgery and biliary or duodenal stent insertion.
Biliary bypass surgery – Biliary bypass surgery reroutes the flow of bile around the tumor if the tumor is blocking the common bile duct. It may also relieve jaundice.
Gastric bypass surgery – This procedure can be performed if the tumor blocks the duodenum, allowing food to flow from the stomach past the blockage.
Stent placement – A stent is a small plastic or metal tube that helps keep the bile duct, pancreatic duct or duodenum open. Stent insertion can relieve blockages in these areas and may be used instead of performing a bypass procedure.
If I’m not eligible for surgery, what are my options?
You are your own best advocate. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network strongly recommends that you discuss your treatment goals with your healthcare team and know all your options at every stage of your disease.
In addition to surgery, treatment options include:
- • Clinical trials
- • Molecular profiling, including our Know Your Tumor precision medicine service
- • Chemotherapy
- • Targeted therapy
- • Radiation therapy
- • Immunotherapy
- • Complementary and alternative therapies
Surgical Advances for Pancreatic Cancer Video
We’re Here to Help
If you have questions or would like additional information and resources about surgery, treatment options or pancreatic cancer specialists, contact a PanCAN Patient Services Case Manager.