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Chemotherapy (chemo) is an anti-cancer drug injected into a vein or taken by mouth. These drugs enter the bloodstream and reach almost all areas of the body, making this treatment potentially useful for cancers whether or not they have spread.
Chemo is often part of the treatment for pancreatic cancer and may be used at any stage:
When chemo is given along with radiation, it is known as chemoradiation. It helps the radiation work better, but can also have more side effects.
In most cases (especially as adjuvant or neoadjuvant treatment), chemo is most effective when 2 or more drugs are given together. For people who are not healthy enough for combined treatments, a single drug (usually gemcitabine, 5-FU, or capecitabine) can be used.
Chemo drugs for pancreatic cancer can be given into a vein (IV) or by mouth as a pill. The infusion can be done in a doctor’s office, chemotherapy clinic, or in a hospital.
Often, slightly larger and sturdier IV lines are required to give chemo. These are known as central venous catheters (CVCs), central venous access devices (CVADs), or central lines. They are used to put medicines, blood products, nutrients, or fluids into your blood. They can also be used to take out blood for testing.
Doctors give chemo in cycles, with each period of treatment followed by a rest period to give you time to recover from the effects of the drugs. Cycles are most often 2 or 3 weeks long. The schedule varies depending on the drugs used. For example, with some drugs, the chemo is given only on the first day of the cycle. With others, it is given for a few days in a row, or once a week. Then, at the end of the cycle, the chemo schedule repeats to start the next cycle.
Adjuvant and neoadjuvant chemo is often given for a total of 3 to 6 months, depending on the drugs used. The length of treatment for advanced pancreatic cancer is based on how well it is working and what side effects you have.
Chemo drugs can cause side effects. These depend on the type and dose of drugs given and how long treatment lasts. Common possible side effects include:
Chemo can also affect the blood-forming cells of the bone marrow, which can lead to:
These side effects usually go away after treatment. There are often ways to lessen these side effects. For example, drugs can be given to help prevent or reduce nausea and vomiting.
Some chemo drugs can cause other side effects. For example:
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
Conroy T, Desseigne F, Ychou M, et al. FOLFIRINOX versus gemcitabine for metastatic pancreatic cancer. N Engl J Med. 2011;364:1817−1825.
Gillen S, Schuster T, Meyer Zum Büschenfelde C, Friess H, Kleeff J. Preoperative/neoadjuvant therapy in pancreatic cancer: A systematic review and meta-analysis of response and resection percentages. PLoS Med. 2010;7:e1000267.
Mauro LA, Herman JM, Jaffee EM, Laheru DA. Chapter 81: Carcinoma of the pancreas. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Dorshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa. Elsevier: 2014.
National Cancer Institute. Physician Data Query (PDQ). Pancreatic Cancer Treatment – for Health Professionals. 2018. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/types/pancreatic/hp/pancreatic-treatment-pdq on December 18, 2018.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Pancreatic Adenocarcinoma. V.1.2019. Accessed at https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/pancreatic.pdf on December 18, 2018.
Oettle H, Neuhaus P, Hochhaus A, et al. Adjuvant chemotherapy with gemcitabine and long-term outcomes among patients with resected pancreatic cancer: The CONKO-001 randomized trial. JAMA. 2013;310:1473−1481.
Winter JM, Brody JR, Abrams RA, Lewis NL, Yeo CJ. Chapter 49: Cancer of the Pancreas. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 10th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2015.
Last Revised: August 5, 2020
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