Chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer
Chemotherapy uses drugs to damage and kill cancer cells. It is one of the main treatments for pancreatic cancer. Different chemotherapy drugs are available to treat pancreatic cancer. They can be used in a variety of ways depending on how far the cancer has spread, and your general health. Chemotherapy can be used:
- before surgery to try to shrink the cancer so that there’s a better chance of removing it
- after surgery to try to reduce the chances of the cancer coming back
- to slow down the growth of cancer that has spread to nearby structures, such as the blood vessels around the pancreas (locally advanced pancreatic cancer)
- when the cancer has spread beyond the pancreas to other parts of the body (advanced or metastatic pancreatic cancer).
You may be given one chemotherapy drug on its own, or two or three different drugs together (combination therapy), depending on how fit and well you are. Chemotherapy can also be given together with radiotherapy (chemoradiotherapy). Or you might be able to have chemotherapy as part of a clinical trial.
The main chemotherapy drug combinations for pancreatic cancer are listed here with the brand name of each drug in brackets.
- FOLFIRINOX – a combination of oxaliplatin (Eloxatin®), leucovirin, irinotecan and Fluorouracil (5-FU)
- Gemcitabine (Gemzar®)
- GemCap - gemcitabine (Gemzar®) and capecitabine (Xeloda®)
- FOLFOX - oxaliplatin (Eloxatin®) with fluorouracil (5-FU) and folinic acid
- Nab-paclitaxel (Abraxane®) with gemcitabine.
Chemotherapy is not usually a single treatment. It is given in cycles, which will vary depending on which drugs you are having. Each cycle includes one or more treatment sessions and a rest period to allow your body to recover before the next cycle starts.
You will regular check-ups and tests before each chemotherapy cycle starts to make sure it’s safe to have the next cycle. Chemotherapy can be given as an injection or infusion into the vein (intravenous chemotherapy), as tablets, or a combination of both. Each cycle includes one or more treatment sessions and a rest period to allow your body to recover before the next cycle starts.
After you finish your chemotherapy, you will have a follow-up appointment with your oncologist (cancer specialist), which will include checking that you are recovering from any side effects of chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy can cause a temporary drop in the number of blood cells that your body produces, which can cause side effects, such as an increase in your risk of infection. Signs of an infection can include a high temperature - a temperature of 37.5oC or 38oC (depending on the advice you’ve been given by your chemotherapy team) is high if you are having chemotherapy. Other side effects may include anaemia or extreme tiredness (fatigue), and some people may feel or be sick.
Chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer can affect you emotionally as well as physically. There is support available, and you can speak to our specialist nurses on our free Support Line with any questions or concerns.
Download our booklet below to find out more about chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer. You can also order hard copies of our publications on our publications order form. Please be aware that nab-paclitaxel is available in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England.
Questions to ask
- How will chemotherapy help me?
- Which chemotherapy drugs would be suitable for me?
- How long will my chemotherapy last?
- What are the side effects and how long will they last?
- Will chemotherapy make surgery to remove my cancer possible?
- Are there any clinical trials that I can take part in?
More chemotherapy information
Updated May 2017
Review date May 2019