Understanding Your Treatment Options
There are four main options currently available for the treatment of pancreatic cancer, surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and clinical trials. Each has its advantages and disadvantages and the best option for one person is not necessarily the best option for another. To choose what is right for you, you will need to discuss all the options with your treatment team and gather all the relevant information you need to make the decision on how best to treat your disease. (also see Gathering information and making decisions)
Surgery to remove the tumor as a component of the treatment is the best way to cure pancreatic cancer. Surgery is performed when the surgeon believes all of the cancer can be removed. This generally applies to patients who are in the early stages of pancreatic cancer. Other types of surgical procedures may be performed in patients who are in later stages of pancreatic cancer to relieve symptoms such as pain and obstructions of the bile or pancreatic ducts or of the intestines.
Radiation therapy, also called radiotherapy, uses high-energy X-rays to shrink tumors by killing cancer cells. External beam radiation therapy is the type used most often to treat pancreatic cancer. A beam of radiation from outside of the body is focused on the tumor, similar to what is done during a diagnostic X-ray, only at much higher doses of radiation.
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. It may be given orally or by injection, or may be delivered through a catheter. Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment, meaning that the drug enters the bloodstream and travels throughout the body to reach the tumor cells. Chemotherapy may be used alone or may be combined with either radiation therapy or surgery. To improve the results of treatment and increase survival, chemotherapy may be used before or after surgery.
A more specific type of chemotherapy is called targeted therapy. These drugs are designed to kill only cancer cells and not normal, healthy tissue. In pancreatic cancer both chemotherapy and targeted therapies are used, many times in combination with each other.
In addition to standard treatments approved by the FDA for pancreatic cancer, patients should be offered the opportunity to participate in clinical trials. Many studies are investigating the use of new medications and of new combinations of standard medicines in hopes of finding better ways to treat pancreatic cancer. It is important to discuss current treatment options with your oncologist. (See Clinical Trials.)
A word of caution on quackery.
There are many claims of new cancer treatments and cure-alls for pancreas cancer. Many of these groups work in isolation, in individual clinics here and abroad. The results are often not validated by the medical community making it very difficult to know whether the claims are true. Please be careful when consuming this information.
There are many outstanding doctors and researchers who are making headway in the treatment of this dreadful disease. These successes come from the mainstream of research where the results are validated by the larger medical community. This validation is critical to know that the results are reproducible and likely more true. Patients need to know that when they buy into cancer quackery they face economic exploitation, risk injury or death, place themselves beyond reach of consumer protection laws, and help sustain quack operations that will exploit other cancer sufferers in the future. One site that has been created to help combat these deceptive claims is Quackwatch - member of Consumer Federation of America, Quackwatch is a non-profit organization dedicated to combating health-related frauds, myths, fads and fallacies. Founded and managed by Dr. Stephen Barrett, Quackwatch offers an entire Cancer Quackery section for patients that lists and describes various "fraudulent" cancer treatments.