Pancreatic Cancer


The pancreas is a vital gland in your digestive system. It’s located behind your stomach and helps your body digest food and regulate how food is used and stored. 

Pancreatic cancer is extremely serious. It’s the most deadly cancer in the U.S. Just 5% of people diagnosed are still alive after 5 years. However, the earlier the cancer is caught and treated, the better your chances of survival.


Symptoms of pancreatic cancer may not appear until the disease is in an advanced stage. They include:

  • Abdominal or back pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Yellowing of skin and whites of eyes
  • Swelling of the abdomen


To diagnose pancreatic cancer, your doctor will ask about your symptoms, perform a physical exam and will likely order lab tests. These may include: 

  • Blood work
  • CT (computed tomography) scan
  • Endoscopic ultrasound (EUS): An endoscope – a thin, lighted tube with a camera lens – is inserted through your mouth and into your stomach. 
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP): Your doctor uses an endoscope to examine and X-ray the pancreatic and biliary ducts. 

Pancreatic cancer is difficult to find early, partly because there are no routine screening tests. Our Familial Pancreatic Cancer Screening Program helps identify people who might be at a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer based on their family health history. If you have questions about your risk factors, call 888-333-1306 or 414-385-2476 to speak with a program coordinator. 

If you are at high risk for pancreatic cancer, you'll be referred to a specially-trained gastroenterologist who may perform an endoscopic ultrasound (EUS). If the EUS is normal, the test may be repeated at appropriate intervals. If the test identifies abnormalities, you'll be referred to a specialist for a follow-up and a biopsy.

Treatment Options

There are many treatment options for pancreatic cancer. Your doctor may suggest a combination of the following: 

Surgery: Your doctor will try to surgically remove the entire tumor if possible, which offers the best chance for survival. This may require removing all or part of your pancreas. Afterwards, you may need insulin or dietary enzymes, as well as nutrition counseling. In some cases, you may even need a feeding tube until you’re able to transition back to normal eating.

There are several different types of surgical procedures:

  • Pancreaticoduodenectomy (Whipple): This is the most common type of surgery for pancreatic cancer. Your surgeon will remove part of your pancreas, part of your small intestine, your gallbladder, part of your stomach and part of your bile duct. 
  • Distal pancreatectomy: During this procedure, your surgeon removes a portion of the pancreas as well as the spleen. 
  • Total pancreatectomy: Your surgeon removes your entire pancreas, part of your small intestine, part of your stomach, part of your bile duct, as well as your gallbladder and spleen. Afterwards, you'll be diabetic and dependent on insulin. You will also need to take pancreatic enzymes with meals to help you digest foods. 
  • Biliary bypass: If the tumor is blocking your common bile duct, this surgery redirects the flow of bile around the tumor, relieving jaundice.
  • Gastric bypass: Sometimes tumors block the portion of your small intestine that connects to your stomach. This surgery will allow food to move past the blockage.
  • Stents: If your bile duct, pancreatic duct or duodenum is blocked, these small plastic or metal tubes can be inserted to keep it open. This can be done with the use of an endoscope during an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP).

Chemotherapy: Anti-cancer drugs are often used after surgery to try to prevent the cancer from coming back. 

Radiation therapy: The most common type of radiation therapy used to treat pancreatic cancer is called external beam radiation therapy. Your doctor may recommend either Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy or CyberKnife® radiosurgery.

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