Pancreatic Cancer Overview

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Treating Pancreatic Cancer TOPICS

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:

  • In people who are going to have surgery, chemo (sometimes with radiation) may be given to shrink the tumor ahead of time. This is known as neoadjuvant treatment.
  • Chemo can also be used after surgery to try to kill any cancer cells that may have been left behind. This type of treatment is called adjuvant treatment. When used this way, chemo is often given with radiation.
  • Chemo can also be used for people with advanced cancer.

Doctors give chemo in cycles, with each period of treatment followed by time to allow the body to recover. Each chemo cycle typically lasts for a few weeks.

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:

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)

Some chemo drugs can also cause other side effects. For example, some drugs can damage nerves. This can lead to problems with numbness, tingling, or pain in the hands and feet.

Most side effects go away once treatment is over. Talk with your doctor or nurse about side effects, as there are often ways to help.

For more about chemo, please see the Chemotherapy section of our website, or our document A Guide to Chemotherapy.

Last Medical Review: 08/01/2014
Last Revised: 02/01/2016