Chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer
Chemotherapy is one of the main treatments for pancreatic cancer.
What is chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. The type of chemotherapy you will have depends on how far the cancer has spread, and on how good your health is.
Chemotherapy is used in different ways.
- Some people have chemotherapy before surgery to try to make the cancer smaller so that there’s a better chance of removing it all.
- Chemotherapy is used after surgery to try to reduce the chance of the cancer coming back.
- You may have chemotherapy if the cancer has spread around the pancreas – for example to the blood vessels near the pancreas. This is called locally advanced pancreatic cancer. Chemotherapy is used to try to stop the cancer growing so fast.
- You may have chemotherapy if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body such as the liver or lungs. This is called advanced or metastatic pancreatic cancer.
How is chemotherapy used?
Sometimes you may have one chemotherapy drug on its own, or two or three drugs together. This will depend on how fit and well you are.
Chemotherapy is also sometimes used with radiotherapy (chemoradiotherapy).
You might be able to have chemotherapy as part of a clinical trial. Clinical trials test new drugs or treatments.
These are the chemotherapy drugs used for pancreatic cancer, and how they are used together. The brand name of each drug is 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.
What will my chemotherapy treatment be like?
You will usually need to have more than one lot of chemotherapy. Each round of chemotherapy is called a cycle. This means you will have one or more treatment sessions and then a gap before the next lot of treatment starts. The gap is to let your body rest.
You will have check-ups and tests before each cycle starts to make sure it’s safe to have the next one. Chemotherapy may be given as an injection, through a drip, as tablets, or as a mix of these.
What are the side effects of chemotherapy?
Having chemotherapy can mean that you are more likely to get an infection. One way of telling that you have an infection is if you have a high temperature. A temperature of 37.5°C or 38°C is high if you are having chemotherapy. Your doctor should give you advice about this.
Some people may feel or be sick when they are having chemotherapy and not feel like eating. Some people have runny poo (diarrhoea). You may also feel very tired and you may get anaemia which can make you feel tired and weak.
Chemotherapy can also cause other side effects. These affect people in different ways. There are treatments to help with side effects.
Where can I get more information and help?
Chemotherapy can affect your feelings as well as your body. But there is support to help. Speak to your doctor or nurse about any questions or worries you may have. You can also speak to our nurses on our free Support Line.
Download our booklet (below) to read more about chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer. You can also order paper copies of our information on our order form.
Questions to ask your doctor or nurse
You might want to write down any questions you have for your doctor to take with you so that you don’t forget to ask them. You may also like to take someone with you when you see your doctor. They can write down the answers to any questions you have and any important information.
- How will chemotherapy help me?
- Which chemotherapy drugs would be best for me?
- How long will my chemotherapy last?
- What are the side effects and how long will they last?
- Are there any clinical trials that I can take part in?
More information on chemotherapy
- Chemotherapy before and after surgery.
- Chemotherapy for inoperable surgery.
- Advantages and disadvantages of chemotherapy.
- Main drugs for pancreatic cancer.
- How is chemotherapy given?
- How does chemotherapy affect the blood?
- Other side effects of chemotherapy.
- What happens afterwards?
- Coping with chemotherapy
Updated May 2017
Review date May 2019