Home Uncategorized Pancreatic Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)–Health Professional Version

Pancreatic Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)–Health Professional Version

General Information About Pancreatic Cancer

This summary provides information about the treatment of exocrine pancreatic cancer. Other PDQ summaries containing information related to cancer in the pancreas include the following:

  • Pancreatic Neuroendocrine Tumors (Islet Cell Tumors) Treatment.
  • Unusual Cancers of Childhood Treatment (pancreatic cancer during childhood).

Incidence and Mortality

Estimated new cases and deaths from pancreatic cancer in the United States in 2018:[1]

  • New cases: 55,440.
  • Deaths: 44,330.

The incidence of carcinoma of the pancreas has markedly increased over the past several decades and ranks as the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the United States. Despite the high mortality rate associated with pancreatic cancer, its etiology is poorly understood.[2]

Risk Factors

Risk factors for development of pancreatic cancer include the following:[3,4]

  • A family history of pancreatic cancer.
  • Cigarette smoking.
  • Obesity.
  • Chronic pancreatitis.


Anatomy of the pancreas.

Cancers of the pancreas are commonly identified by the site of involvement within the pancreas. Surgical approaches differ for masses in the head, body, tail, or uncinate process of the pancreas.

Clinical Features

Pancreatic cancer symptoms depend on the site of the tumor within the pancreas and the degree of tumor involvement.

In the early stages of pancreatic cancer there are not many noticeable symptoms. As the cancer grows, symptoms may include the following:

  • Jaundice.
  • Light-colored stools or dark urine.
  • Pain in the upper or middle abdomen and back.
  • Weight loss for no known reason.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Fatigue.

Diagnostic and Staging Evaluation

Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect and diagnose for the following reasons:

  • There are no noticeable signs or symptoms in the early stages of pancreatic cancer.
  • The signs of pancreatic cancer, when present, are like the signs of many other illnesses, such as pancreatitis or an ulcer.
  • The pancreas is obscured by other organs in the abdomen and is difficult to visualize clearly on imaging tests.

To appropriately treat pancreatic cancer, it is crucial to evaluate whether the cancer can be resected.


The use of imaging technology may aid in the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and in the identification of patients with disease that is not amenable to resection. Imaging tests that may be used include the following:[5]

  • Helical computed tomographic scan.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging scan.
  • Endoscopic ultrasound.
  • Minimally invasive techniques, such as laparoscopy and laparoscopic ultrasound may be used to decrease the use of laparotomy.[6,7]

Peritoneal cytology

In a case series of 228 patients, positive peritoneal cytology had a positive predictive value of 94%, specificity of 98%, and sensitivity of 25% for determining unresectability.[8]

Tumor markers

No tumor-specific markers exist for pancreatic cancer; markers such as serum cancer antigen (CA) 19-9 have low specificity. Most patients with pancreatic cancer will have an elevated CA 19-9 at diagnosis. Following or during definitive therapy, the increase of CA 19-9 levels may identify patients with progressive tumor growth.[9][Level of evidence: 3iDiii] The presence of a normal CA 19-9, however, does not preclude recurrence.

Prognosis and Survival

The primary factors that influence prognosis are:

  • Whether the tumor is localized and can be completely resected.
  • Whether the tumor has spread to lymph nodes or elsewhere.

Exocrine pancreatic cancer is rarely curable and has an overall survival (OS) rate of less than 6%.[10]

The highest cure rate occurs when the tumor is truly localized to the pancreas; however, this stage of disease accounts for less than 20% of cases. For patients with localized disease and small cancers (<2 cm) with no lymph node metastases and no extension beyond the capsule of the pancreas, complete surgical resection is associated with an actuarial 5-year survival rate of 18% to 24%.[11][Level of evidence: 3iA]

Surgical resection is the mainstay of curative treatment and provides a survival benefit in patients with small, localized pancreatic tumors. Patients with unresectable, metastatic, or recurrent disease are unlikely to benefit from surgical resection.

Pancreatic tumors are resistant to treatment with chemotherapy and radiation.

Patients with any stage of pancreatic cancer can appropriately be considered candidates for clinical trials because of the poor response to chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery as conventionally used.

Palliative Therapy

Palliation of symptoms may be achieved with conventional treatment.

Palliative measures that may improve quality of life while not affecting OS include the following:[12,13]

  • Surgical or radiologic biliary decompression.
  • Relief of gastric outlet obstruction.
  • Pain control.
  • Psychological care to address the potentially disabling psychological events associated with the diagnosis and treatment of pancreatic cancer.[14]
  1. American Cancer Society: Cancer Facts and Figures 2018. Atlanta, Ga: American Cancer Society, 2018. Available online. Last accessed August 3, 2018.
  2. Silverman DT, Schiffman M, Everhart J, et al.: Diabetes mellitus, other medical conditions and familial history of cancer as risk factors for pancreatic cancer. Br J Cancer 80 (11): 1830-7, 1999. [PUBMED Abstract]
  3. Tersmette AC, Petersen GM, Offerhaus GJ, et al.: Increased risk of incident pancreatic cancer among first-degree relatives of patients with familial pancreatic cancer. Clin Cancer Res 7 (3): 738-44, 2001. [PUBMED Abstract]
  4. Nöthlings U, Wilkens LR, Murphy SP, et al.: Meat and fat intake as risk factors for pancreatic cancer: the multiethnic cohort study. J Natl Cancer Inst 97 (19): 1458-65, 2005. [PUBMED Abstract]
  5. Riker A, Libutti SK, Bartlett DL: Advances in the early detection, diagnosis, and staging of pancreatic cancer. Surg Oncol 6 (3): 157-69, 1997. [PUBMED Abstract]
  6. John TG, Greig JD, Carter DC, et al.: Carcinoma of the pancreatic head and periampullary region. Tumor staging with laparoscopy and laparoscopic ultrasonography. Ann Surg 221 (2): 156-64, 1995. [PUBMED Abstract]
  7. Minnard EA, Conlon KC, Hoos A, et al.: Laparoscopic ultrasound enhances standard laparoscopy in the staging of pancreatic cancer. Ann Surg 228 (2): 182-7, 1998. [PUBMED Abstract]
  8. Merchant NB, Conlon KC, Saigo P, et al.: Positive peritoneal cytology predicts unresectability of pancreatic adenocarcinoma. J Am Coll Surg 188 (4): 421-6, 1999. [PUBMED Abstract]
  9. Willett CG, Daly WJ, Warshaw AL: CA 19-9 is an index of response to neoadjunctive chemoradiation therapy in pancreatic cancer. Am J Surg 172 (4): 350-2, 1996. [PUBMED Abstract]
  10. Siegel R, Naishadham D, Jemal A: Cancer statistics, 2013. CA Cancer J Clin 63 (1): 11-30, 2013. [PUBMED Abstract]
  11. Yeo CJ, Abrams RA, Grochow LB, et al.: Pancreaticoduodenectomy for pancreatic adenocarcinoma: postoperative adjuvant chemoradiation improves survival. A prospective, single-institution experience. Ann Surg 225 (5): 621-33; discussion 633-6, 1997. [PUBMED Abstract]
  12. Sohn TA, Lillemoe KD, Cameron JL, et al.: Surgical palliation of unresectable periampullary adenocarcinoma in the 1990s. J Am Coll Surg 188 (6): 658-66; discussion 666-9, 1999. [PUBMED Abstract]
  13. Baron TH: Expandable metal stents for the treatment of cancerous obstruction of the gastrointestinal tract. N Engl J Med 344 (22): 1681-7, 2001. [PUBMED Abstract]
  14. Passik SD, Breitbart WS: Depression in patients with pancreatic carcinoma. Diagnostic and treatment issues. Cancer 78 (3 Suppl): 615-26, 1996. [PUBMED Abstract]