Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic Cancer Treatments

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UT Southwestern Medical Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the nation's top 25 hospitals for cancer care.

What is Pancreatic Cancer?

When detected at an early stage, pancreatic cancer has a higher chance of being successfully treated. However, treatments are also available that can help control the disease for patients with later-stage pancreatic cancer to help them live longer. UT Southwestern Medical Center offers treatments for patients with all stages of pancreatic cancer. 

Surgery for Pancreatic Cancer

Surgery is the only treatment with the potential to cure pancreatic adenocarcinoma, the most common type of pancreatic cancer. However, surgery is an option only when the cancer is still localized within the pancreas and resectable (removable). Because pancreatic cancer is rarely diagnosed at this stage, only about one in five people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are candidates for surgery. 

Pancreatic tumors that initially appeared to be resectable during diagnosis sometimes turn out to be too advanced to be removed completely during surgery. In these cases, the operation might be stopped entirely, or we might continue with a smaller operation with the goal of relieving or preventing symptoms. 

Choosing the patients most likely to benefit from surgery for pancreatic cancer is critical. For patients with pancreatic cancer who have been identified as candidates for surgery, selecting the appropriate operation is also very important. 

The Whipple Procedure

UT Southwestern surgeons have extensive experience in treating localized pancreatic cancer through the Whipple procedure, also known as pancreaticoduodenectomy. 

The Whipple procedure is the most commonly performed surgery to remove tumors in the head of the pancreas.

During the procedure:

  • The surgeons remove the head of the pancreas.
  • Parts of the small intestine, bile duct, gallbladder, and lymph nodes near the pancreas are also removed. In some cases, part of the stomach may be removed.
  • The remaining parts of the pancreas and bile duct are reconnected with the small intestine to allow for digestion.

Robot-Assisted Whipple Procedure

Until recently, the Whipple procedure always required a large incision. UT Southwestern now offers a robotic approach to the surgery, which can reduce pain and speed recovery compared to the traditional method. Our team is among the most experienced in the world in robotic procedures for complex gastrointestinal and hepato-pancreato-biliary (HPB) malignancies.

In robot-assisted Whipple procedure, our surgeons:

  • Make several small incisions in the abdomen.
  • Insert surgical instruments and a camera to allow them to clearly see inside the body.
  • Use the robot to guide the surgical instruments to remove the parts of the pancreas, small intestine, gallbladder, and nearby lymph nodes.
  • Reattach the remaining parts of the pancreas and bile duct to the small intestine to allow for digestion. 

Additional Surgical Approaches

Our surgical oncologists are also experts in a number of other surgical procedures that can extend and improve the lives of people with pancreatic cancer. 

When pancreatic cancer has been diagnosed as locally advanced or borderline resectable, it often cannot be completely removed because it has grown into or surrounded nearby major blood vessels. But that doesn’t mean no treatment is possible: UT Southwestern surgical oncologists are among the few in the region who can remove and reconstruct blood vessels affected by pancreatic cancer. 

Inside the OR: Robotic Pancreatic Surgery

The Whipple procedure is one of the most technically challenging abdominal surgeries – and it is also a UT Southwestern specialty. In this video, Dr. Herbert Zeh, Chair of our Department of Surgery, and Dr. Patricio Polanco, a GI and robotic surgery expert, take you inside the operating room for a firsthand look at this complex surgery.

Chemotherapy and Radiation Treatment for Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic tumors are typically viewed as resistant to chemotherapy and radiation therapy. However, recent advances in chemotherapy and radiation therapy mean that pancreatic tumors can sometimes be stabilized or minimized with these treatments. 

In some cases, patients whose tumors were previously considered inoperable might later be considered candidates for surgery. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments might also help extend the lives of patients with pancreatic cancer who are not considered good candidates for surgery.

We routinely review research and cases to be sure that our patients have access to the most effective therapies, such as embolization, ablative treatments, and immunotherapy.

Palliative Care and Support Services for Pancreatic Cancer

If pancreatic cancer has advanced by the time treatment has begun, palliative treatment can help slow its spread and control symptoms and complications. 

Optimizing nutrition can help people with pancreatic cancer manage symptoms and achieve a better quality of life during treatment. Our cancer dietitians can help patients improve their nutrition while fighting pancreatic cancer, and pancreatic enzymes can be prescribed to support digestion.  

In situations where pancreatic cancer is found to be incurable, we will recommend other treatments to help keep the cancer under control and relieve associated symptoms.  

Learning to live with pancreatic cancer during and after treatment is extremely challenging. We understand the stress that falls not only on patients but also on their family members and caregivers. UT Southwestern offers an array of support services to help patients and families throughout the pancreatic cancer care journey.