If you can have surgery to remove the cancer (early pancreatic cancer)

This information is for people who have been diagnosed with early pancreatic cancer, and can have surgery to remove the cancer.

If you have been told that surgery to remove your cancer may be possible, you may have been diagnosed with stage 1 cancer – this is early, localised pancreatic cancer. Or you may have been diagnosed with stage 2 cancer. This means that the cancer has started to spread to a small number of lymph nodes, or to the bile duct or first part of the small intestine (duodenum). It hasn’t spread to large blood vessels near the pancreas. Read more about these organs. If you have stage 2 cancer, you might be able to have surgery, but this depends on how far the cancer has spread.

Your doctor may call your cancer operable or resectable – which means you can have surgery. Read more about your treatment options if you have early pancreatic cancer below.

If your cancer is close to major blood vessels

Occasionally the cancer may grow very close to major blood vessels near the pancreas. You may be able to have surgery, but this depends on which blood vessels are affected by the cancer, and how close the cancer has grown to the blood vessels.

This is called borderline resectable pancreatic cancer – although your doctor may not call it this. They may just talk to you about your treatment options (read more about these below). It is stage 3 cancer.

Stage 3 pancreatic cancer is usually locally advanced cancer. If you have locally advanced cancer, it won’t usually be possible to remove it with surgery. You may have chemotherapy, sometimes with radiotherapy, to slow down the growth of the cancer.

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What are my treatment options if I have early pancreatic cancer?

Surgery to completely remove the cancer is the most effective treatment for early pancreatic cancer. You should be offered chemotherapy after surgery, to try to reduce the chances of the cancer coming back.

Clinical trials are carefully controlled medical research studies that involve patients. You could ask your medical team whether there are any clinical trials that you could take part in. Most trials in pancreatic cancer aim to find better treatments, including better ways of using surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

What are my treatment options if I have borderline resectable cancer?

If your cancer is close to major blood vessels, your doctors will look carefully at your scan results to try work out if surgery is possible. But it can be hard to tell how close the cancer has grown to blood vessels and whether it is possible to remove it.

You may be able to have surgery . This depends on which blood vessels are affected by the cancer, and how far the cancer has grown.

You may be offered chemotherapy and possibly radiotherapy . This can occasionally shrink the cancer enough to make surgery possible. You will have another scan to check how well the treatment has worked.

Different medical teams may have different opinions about whether surgery is possible. You can ask for a second opinion from a different medical team.

Read more about surgery when the cancer is close to major blood vessels.

Questions about your diagnosis?

You will probably have lots of questions about your diagnosis or treatment options. Ask your doctor or nurse any questions you have – they are there to support you.

You can also speak to our specialist nurses on our Support Line about any questions or concerns.

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Specialist nurse Rachel

Questions to ask your doctor or nurse


  • What does my diagnosis mean?
  • What are my treatment options?
  • Is surgery possible?
  • Will I have chemotherapy after surgery?
  • Are there any clinical trials that would be suitable for me?
  • What should I do if my symptoms get worse while I am waiting for treatment?
  • How can I manage my symptoms?
  • Will the treatment I’m having help relieve symptoms?
  • Who should I talk to if I get any new symptoms?
  • What happens next?

Whatever your options, treatment is your decision. You don’t have to decide anything straight away. You may be offered another appointment if you need it to discuss any more questions you have.

Managing symptoms and side effects if you have early pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer can cause symptoms, and the treatments can cause side effects. Not everyone will have the same symptoms or side effects.

It’s important to talk to your medical team about any symptoms as they can help you with managing them. Getting treatment for symptoms can improve how you feel, both physically and emotionally.

What symptoms and side effects might I get if I have early pancreatic cancer?

There are some common symptoms of early pancreatic cancer and side effects of treatment.

Speak to your doctor or nurse about any symptoms you have – they can help to manage them. You can also speak to our specialist nurses on our Support Line with any questions about symptoms.

It helped me to try and keep as fit and healthy as possible while dealing with symptoms, so I took walks and ate sensibly.

Read other people's stories

Read other people’s experiences of being diagnosed with early pancreatic cancer and having surgery.

Stories about operable cancer

Published September 2020

To be reviewed September 2022