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Chemotherapy for inoperable cancer

If it’s not possible to remove the cancer with surgery (inoperable cancer), you may be offered chemotherapy to help control the cancer. It can also help with your symptoms, and help you to feel better. 

Locally advanced pancreatic cancer

Locally advanced pancreatic cancer is cancer that has spread to areas near the pancreas, such as the stomach, spleen or large blood vessels. It is unlikely that surgery to remove the cancer will be possible.

You should be offered chemotherapy, and sometimes chemoradiotherapy. This may shrink the cancer and slow down its growth. For a small number of people, this treatment may shrink the cancer enough to make surgery possible.

You may be offered FOLFIRINOX, or gemcitabine with capecitabine (GemCap). If you are not well enough to deal with the possible side effects of these treatments, your oncologist (cancer doctor) should consider gemcitabine on its own.  

Advanced pancreatic cancer

Advanced pancreatic cancer is cancer that has spread away from the pancreas to other parts of the body. Surgery to remove the cancer won’t be possible.

Chemotherapy may help to control the cancer, and help with symptoms. It won’t cure the cancer, but it may help you live longer and feel better generally.      

You will need to be well enough for chemotherapy. You will have a scan every three months to see how well the chemotherapy is working and how it is affecting you.

  • You may be offered FOLFIRINOX if you are well enough to deal with the possible side effects.
  • Or you may be offered gemcitabine together with nab-paclitaxel (Abraxane®).
  • If you aren’t able to have these treatments, your doctor may consider gemcitabine together with capecitabine (GemCap).
  • If you aren’t well enough for a combination of chemotherapy drugs, you should be offered gemcitabine on its own.

If the first chemotherapy treatment you have doesn’t work, or has stopped working, different drugs may be used to try to control the cancer for longer. This is called second-line chemotherapy.

You might be able to have chemotherapy as part of a clinical trial. Speak to your chemotherapy team about which treatment may be best for you.

Read more information

Read more about the different chemotherapy treatments used to treat pancreatic cancer.

Find out more about clinical trials, and the trials that are taking place in the UK.

Read about the side effects of chemotherapy and how these are managed.

Read about chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer that can be removed with surgery.

Speak to our specialist nurses on our free Support Line.

Updated August 2019

Review date August 2021