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Surgery to remove pancreatic cancer

This information is for people with pancreatic cancer who are having surgery to remove pancreatic cancer, such as the Whipple’s operation.

If you have recently had surgery for pancreatic cancer you may have an increased risk of the coronavirus (COVID-19) infection while you are recovering from the operation. If your spleen has been removed, your risk from the virus may be higher as the spleen is part of the immune system and helps to protect against infection. Read our blog for more information about how to reduce your risk and what to do if you are worried.

Can I have surgery to remove my cancer?

If your cancer is at an early stage and hasn’t spread outside the pancreas, surgery to remove the cancer is the best treatment. This is called resectable or operable pancreatic cancer.

If the cancer has started to grow very close to the main blood vessels near the pancreas, it may also be possible to remove the cancer. But this depends on which blood vessels are affected and also on how far the cancer has grown. This is called borderline resectable cancer. You may be offered chemotherapy to try to shrink the cancer and make surgery possible.

Surgery to remove pancreatic cancer is a big operation, and you will need to be fit enough to have it. As with any big operation, there are some risks, such as getting an infection – read more about the risks.

Speak to your doctor or nurse about whether surgery is an option for you, and whether you will have chemotherapy.

What if I can’t have surgery?

Sometimes the surgeon may start the operation, but find that it’s not possible to remove the cancer because it has grown too far. If this happens, the surgeon may do a different operation, called bypass surgery, to help control symptoms.

If your cancer can’t be removed by surgery, you may be able to have chemotherapy to stop it growing as quickly. There are also ways to treat any symptoms.

What does the surgery do?

There are different types of surgery for pancreatic cancer. The most common type is called a Whipple’s operation. They all involve taking away all or part of the pancreas. The doctors will also remove other organs around the pancreas. Read more about what surgery involves.

You should have chemotherapy after you have recovered from your surgery.

What are the side effects of surgery?

There are some side effects of surgery.

It can take several months, or sometimes longer, to fully recover from surgery for pancreatic cancer.

Where can I get more information and help?

To read more about surgery for pancreatic cancer download our fact sheet below. You can also order paper copies of the fact sheet by using our publications order form.

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Surgery to remove pancreatic cancer is a big operation and can affect your feelings as well as your body. But there is help.

You can speak to our nurses on our free Support Line about any questions or concerns you may have.

Questions to ask your doctor or nurse

You can 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 want to take someone with you when you see your doctor. They can write down any important information and the answers to any questions you have.

  • Can I have surgery to remove my cancer?
  • Has  the cancer spread to any main blood vessels?
  • Will I have chemotherapy or radiotherapy before or after my surgery?
  • Are there any clinical trials that I can take part in?
  • Which type of operation do I need?
  • How much of my pancreas will be removed?
  • Will any other organs be removed?
  • Should I do anything to prepare for surgery?
  • What side effects might I get?
  • Who can I see for help with managing side effects?
  • How will any pain be managed?
  • How will surgery affect eating and digestion? Would pancreatic enzyme supplements help?
  • How should I manage my diabetes?
  • What should I do if my side effects don’t improve?
  • Where can I get support to help me cope?

Read more about who can have surgery to remove the cancer

Find out about the different types of surgery for pancreatic cancer

Find out about what surgery involves

Read about the advantages, disadvantages and risks

What happens before your operation?

What happens after your operation?

Recovering from surgery

Read about the side effects of surgery and how these are managed

Find out about check-ups after surgery

Peer support for people having surgery

Published April 2019

Review date March 2021

If you would like the references to the sources of information used to write this fact sheet, email us at publications@pancreaticcancer.org.uk

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