Pancreatic Cancer Treatments
Your care team will tailor your pancreatic cancer treatment plan to your unique needs. Pancreatic cancer treatment depends on your overall health, the extent of the disease and your tolerance for different therapies.
Your Pancreatic Cancer Treatment Team
Northwestern Medicine offers comprehensive, compassionate care in modern, patient-centered facilities. Your cancer care team may include:
- Surgical oncologists
- Medical oncologists
- Radiation oncologists
- Palliative medicine physicians
- Interventional radiologists
- Advanced practice nurses
- Rehabilitation therapists
- Lab technicians, radiation technicians
Our multidisciplinary team is dedicated to listening and responding to patient concerns, promoting well-being and treating each person with respect and compassion. The Supportive Oncology Program at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center at Northwestern Medicine works with clinical scientists who conduct clinical trials aimed at improving the psychosocial health of adults with cancer. Our services include:
- Clinical psychologists
- Coordinators of supportive oncology education
- Fertility preservation program navigators
- Registered dietitians
- Nurse navigators
- Psychiatry team
- Social workers
Cancer Care Closer to Home
Addressing cancer is a multistep journey that may require many visits. During treatment, you need to focus your energy on getting healthy, not getting to the next appointment. That’s why treatment and support services at Northwestern Medicine are conveniently located throughout Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, so you can get quick access to all the expertise and support you need, close to home.
Treatment options will likely include a combination of the following treatments.
Your surgical oncologist (a surgeon who is specially trained in cancer care) can remove a tumor, part of the pancreas, or the entire pancreas and/or small intestine. This can often be done with a minimally invasive approach.
Surgical options include:
- Whipple procedure (also called pancreaticoduodenectomy): This surgery is the most common for completely removing tumors from the pancreas. This procedure involves the removal of:
- The head of the pancreas
- Lymph nodes near the bile duct
- Duodenum (part of the small intestine)
- Part of the stomach
- The body of the pancreas
- The gallbladder and part of the common bile duct
- After this surgery, bile from your liver, food from your stomach and digestive juices from the remaining part of your pancreas all enter your small intestine, so you can have normal digestion.
- Pylorus-preserving pancreaticoduodenectomy: This surgery is like the Whipple procedure except your surgeon does not remove the lower part of your stomach.
- Total pancreatectomy: Less common than the Whipple procedure, this surgery will remove the:
- Entire pancreas
- Distal common bile duct
- Part of your stomach
- Gallbladder, if you still have one
After your surgeon removes your whole pancreas, you will not be able to make pancreatic juices or insulin. You will need to test your blood glucose levels, give yourself insulin injections, and take other steps to keep your blood glucose levels normal. You will also need to take pancreatic enzyme pills with food help digest them.
- Distal pancreatectomy: Your surgeon will consider this surgery if your cancer is only in the tail of your pancreas. For this surgery, your surgeon removes only the tail of your pancreas, which is the thin part, and perhaps part of its body, the middle section. The surgeon also usually removes your spleen.
- Palliative procedures: Your physician may also suggest surgery and other procedures to ease or prevent symptoms associated with pancreatic cancer. These procedures may help restore your bile flow, allow food to leave your stomach into your small intestine, or ease pain. For example, surgery may relieve a blocked bile duct by bypassing it. Surgery may also relieve a blockage at the outlet of the stomach to the first part of the duodenum by bypassing it. This is called bowel-bypass surgery. Palliative surgery may include:
- Surgery to redirect the flow of bile directly into your small intestine
- Surgery to allow your stomach to empty into another portion of your small intestine
- Injections to block or numb nerves near your pancreas
- Placing a stent (a small tube) inside the bile duct or duodenum to help keep it open
Your radiation oncologist (a physician who is specially trained in treating cancer with radiation) will discuss the best treatment options for you. Your treatment may involve different radiation therapies, including:
- Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT): IMRT is a high-precision radiotherapy that uses computer-controlled linear accelerators to deliver precise radiation doses to a malignant (harmful) tumor.
- Gamma Knife® radiosurgery (stereotactic radiotherapy): Gamma Knife radiosurgery delivers a single high-dose radiation to a cancerous tumor.
- Proton therapy: Proton therapy is one of the most precise forms of radiation therapy. It can be precisely controlled so most of the radiation ends up directly in the tumor, reducing the risk of damage to healthy tissues around the tumor. This causes fewer short- and long-term side effects. It has been effective in treating certain types of pancreatic cancer. The Northwestern Medicine Proton Center is the first and only proton center in Illinois, and the ninth in the country, to offer proton therapy.
During chemotherapy, medications are administered, either through your veins or by mouth, to interfere with the cancer cells’ ability to reproduce. Your experienced medical oncologist (a physician specially trained to treat cancer with medication) will determine the best combination of chemotherapy medications for your stage of cancer.
Side effects from cancer treatment can impact your quality of life and how your body responds to treatment. Northwestern Medicine is home to a diverse team of palliative medicine specialists who work with your oncologist to help relieve your pain and manage your symptoms. The palliative medicine specialists may help:
- Treat pain and other physical symptoms of cancer, such as fatigue, nausea, trouble sleeping, poor appetite, breathing difficulties and weight loss
- Treat any emotional symptoms, such as depression and anxiety
- Improve your body’s ability to tolerate cancer treatments
- Help you better understanding tests, procedures and other options
- Guide you and those who care for you to helpful resources
From your initial diagnosis and continuing throughout your care, your palliative care team will support you during your cancer journey.