pancreatic cancer treatment
Many people with pancreatic cancer want to take an active part in making decisions about their medical care. They want to learn all they can about their disease and their treatment choices. However, the shock and stress that people may feel after a diagnosis of cancer can make it hard for them to think of everything they want to ask the doctor. Often it helps to make a list of questions before an appointment. To help remember what the doctor says, patients may take notes or ask whether they may use a tape recorder. Some patients also want to have a family member or friend with them when they talk to the doctor-to take part in the discussion, to take notes, or just to listen.
Cancer of the pancreas is very hard to control with current treatments. For that reason, many doctors encourage patients with this disease to consider taking part in a clinical trial. Clinical trials are an important option for people with all stages of pancreatic cancer. The section on "The promise of cancer research" has more information about clinical trials.
At this time, pancreatic cancer can be cured only when it is found at an early stage, before it has spread. However, other treatments may be able to control the disease and help patients live longer and feel better. When a cure or control of the disease is not possible, some patients and their doctors choose palliative therapy. Palliative therapy aims to improve quality of life by controlling pain and other problems caused by this disease.
The doctor may refer patients to an oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating cancer, or patients may ask for a referral. Specialists who treat pancreatic cancer include surgeons, medical oncologists, and radiation oncologists. Treatment generally begins within a few weeks after the diagnosis. There will be time for patients to talk with the doctor about treatment choices, get a second opinion, and learn more about the disease.
Preparing for treatment
The doctor can describe treatment choices and discuss the results expected with each treatment option. The doctor and patient can work together to develop a treatment plan that fits the patient's needs.
Treatment depends on where in the pancreas the tumor started and whether the disease has spread. When planning treatment, the doctor also considers other factors, including the patient's age and general health.
These are some questions a person may want to ask the doctor before treatment begins:
People do not need to ask all of their questions or understand all of the answers at one time. They will have other chances to ask the doctor to explain things that are not clear and to ask for more information.
People with pancreatic cancer may have several treatment options. Depending on the type and stage, pancreatic cancer may be treated with surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy. Some patients have a combination of therapies.
Surgery may be used alone or in combination with radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
The surgeon may remove all or part of the pancreas. The extent of surgery depends on the location and size of the tumor, the stage of the disease, and the patient's general health.
Sometimes the cancer cannot be completely removed. But if the tumor is blocking the common bile duct or duodenum, the surgeon can create a bypass. A bypass allows fluids to flow through the digestive tract. It can help relieve jaundice and pain resulting from a blockage.
The doctor sometimes can relieve blockage without doing bypass surgery. The doctor uses an endoscope to place a stent in the blocked area. A stent is a tiny plastic or metal mesh tube that helps keep the duct or duodenum open.
After surgery, some patients are fed liquids intravenously (by IV) and through feeding tubes placed into the abdomen. Patients slowly return to eating solid foods by mouth. A few weeks after surgery, the feeding tubes are removed.
These are some questions a person may want to ask the doctor before having surgery:
Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. A large machine directs radiation at the abdomen. Radiation therapy may be given alone, or with surgery, chemotherapy, or both.
Radiation therapy is local therapy. It affects cancer cells only in the treated area. For radiation therapy, patients go to the hospital or clinic, often 5 days a week for several weeks.
Doctors may use radiation to destroy cancer cells that remain in the area after surgery. They also use radiation to relieve pain and other problems caused by the cancer.
These are some questions a person may want to ask the doctor before having radiation therapy:
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Doctors also give chemotherapy to help reduce pain and other problems caused by pancreatic cancer. It may be given alone, with radiation, or with surgery and radiation.
Chemotherapy is systemic therapy. The doctor usually gives the drugs by injection. Once in the bloodstream, the drugs travel throughout the body.
Usually chemotherapy is an outpatient treatment given at the hospital, clinic, doctor's office, or home. However, depending on which drugs are given and the patient's general health, the patient may need to stay in the hospital.
Patients may want to ask these questions about chemotherapy:
Surgery for pancreatic cancer is a major operation. Patients need to stay in the hospital for several days afterward. Patients may feel weak or tired. Most need to rest at home for about a month. The length of time it takes to regain strength varies.
The side effects of surgery depend on the extent of the operation, the person's general health, and other factors. Most patients have pain for the first few days after surgery. Pain can be controlled with medicine, and patients should discuss pain relief with the doctor or nurse. The section on "Pain control" has more information.
Removal of part or all of the pancreas may make it hard for a patient to digest foods. The health care team can suggest a diet plan and medicines to help relieve diarrhea, pain, cramping, or feelings of fullness. During the recovery from surgery, the doctor will carefully monitor the patient's diet and weight. At first, a patient may have only liquids and may receive extra nourishment intravenously or by feeding tube into the intestine. Solid foods are added to the diet gradually.
Patients may not have enough pancreatic enzymes or hormones after surgery. Those who do not have enough insulin may develop diabetes. The doctor can give the patient insulin, other hormones, and enzymes.
Radiation therapy may cause patients to become very tired as treatment continues. Resting is important, but doctors usually advise patients to try to stay as active as they can. In addition, when patients receive radiation therapy, the skin in the treated area may sometimes become red, dry, and tender.
Radiation therapy to the abdomen may cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or other problems with digestion. The health care team can offer medicine or suggest diet changes to control these problems. For most patients, the side effects of radiation therapy go away when treatment is over.
The side effects of chemotherapy depend mainly on the drugs and the doses the patient receives as well as how the drugs are given. In addition, as with other types of treatment, side effects vary from patient to patient.
Systemic chemotherapy affects rapidly dividing cells throughout the body, including blood cells. Blood cells fight infection, help the blood to clot, and carry oxygen to all parts of the body. When anticancer drugs damage healthy blood cells, patients are more likely to get infections, may bruise or bleed easily, and may have less energy. Cells in hair roots and cells that line the digestive tract also divide rapidly. As a result, patients may lose their hair and may have other side effects such as poor appetite, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, or mouth sores. Usually, these side effects go away gradually during the recovery periods between treatments or after treatment is over. The health care team can suggest ways to relieve side effects.
Pain is a common problem for people with pancreatic cancer. The tumor can
cause pain by pressing against nerves and other organs.
The patient's doctor or a specialist in pain control can relieve or reduce pain in several ways:
The doctor may suggest other ways to relieve or reduce pain. For example, massage, acupuncture, or acupressure may be used along with other approaches to help relieve pain. Also, the patient may learn relaxation techniques such as listening to slow music or breathing slowly and comfortably.
People with pancreatic cancer may not feel like eating, especially if they are uncomfortable or tired. Also, the side effects of treatment such as poor appetite, nausea, or vomiting can make eating difficult. Foods may taste different. Nevertheless, patients should try to get enough calories and protein to control weight loss, maintain strength, and promote healing. Also, eating well often helps people with cancer feel better and have more energy.
Careful planning and checkups are important. Cancer of the pancreas and its treatment may make it hard for patients to digest food and maintain the proper blood sugar level. The doctor will check the patient for weight loss, weakness, and lack of energy. Patients may need to take medicines to replace the enzymes and hormones made by the pancreas. The doctor will watch the patient closely and adjust the doses of these medicines.
The doctor, dietitian, or other health care provider can advise patients about ways to maintain a healthy diet.
Follow-up care after treatment for pancreatic cancer is an important part of the overall treatment plan. Patients should not hesitate to discuss follow-up with their doctor. Regular checkups ensure that any changes in health are noticed. Any problem that develops can be found and treated. Checkups may include a physical exam, laboratory tests, and imaging procedures.
Sources for people with pancreatic cancer
Living with a serious disease such as pancreatic cancer is not easy. Some people find they need help coping with the emotional and practical aspects of their disease. Support groups can help. In these groups, patients or their family members get together to share what they have learned about coping with their disease and the effects of treatment. Patients may want to talk with a member of their health care team about finding a support group.
People living with pancreatic cancer may worry about the future. They may worry about caring for themselves or their families, keeping their jobs, or continuing daily activities. Concerns about treatments and managing side effects, hospital stays, and medical bills are also common. Doctors, nurses, and other members of the health care team can answer questions about treatment, diet, working, or other matters. Meeting with a social worker, counselor, or member of the clergy can be helpful to those who want to talk about their feelings or discuss their concerns. Often, a social worker can suggest resources for financial aid, transportation, home care, emotional support, or other services.
The promise of cancer research
Laboratory scientists are studying the pancreas to learn more about it. They are studying the possible causes of pancreatic cancer and are researching new ways to detect tumors. They also are looking for new therapies that may kill cancer cells.
Doctors in clinics and hospitals are conducting many types of clinical trials. These are research studies in which people take part voluntarily. In these trials, researchers are studying ways to treat pancreatic cancer. Research already has led to advances in treatment methods, and researchers continue to search for more effective approaches to treat this disease.
Patients who join clinical trials have the first chance to benefit from new treatments that have shown promise in earlier research. They also make an important contribution to medical science by helping doctors learn more about the disease. Although clinical trials may pose some risks, researchers take very careful steps to protect their patients.
In trials with people who have pancreatic cancer, doctors are studying new drugs, new combinations of chemotherapy, and combinations of chemotherapy and radiation before and after surgery.
Biological therapy is also under investigation. Scientists are studying several cancer vaccines to help the immune system fight cancer. Other studies use monoclonal antibodies to slow or stop the growth of cancer.
Patients who are interested in joining a clinical study should talk with their doctor.