Prognosis for inoperable pancreatic cancer

Some people want to know how long they may have left to live. This is called your prognosis, outlook, or life expectancy. This page explains prognosis if you have cancer that can't be removed with surgery (inoperable cancer).

The prognosis will be different for each person, and depends on several things, including how far the cancer has spread, how well you are, and what treatments you can have.

You may not want to know your prognosis. Everyone is different, and it is up to you whether you find out about your prognosis. But if you do want to know, talk to your doctor – they should be able to give you an idea of what to expect. There is a lot of information about pancreatic cancer online and not all of it is accurate, so it’s important to speak to your doctor about your own situation.

Questions to ask your doctor or nurse

  • What are my treatment options?
  • How long do I have left to live?
  • How accurate is my prognosis?
  • Should I get a second opinion?
  • I don’t want to know my prognosis, but can you tell me how my cancer will change?
  • What symptoms will I have? How can symptoms be managed?
  • What difference will it make to my quality of life if I decide to have chemotherapy? What about if I don’t have chemotherapy?
  • What’s the benefit of having treatment, and are there any risks?
  • What are my options if I decide not to have chemotherapy or other treatments?
  • Is there anything I can do to help me live longer?
  • If I don’t want to know my prognosis but my family do, can you speak to them in confidence?

Survival rates for pancreatic cancer

Some people want to know about survival rates for pancreatic cancer. Survival rates are averages based on large groups of people with pancreatic cancer. They can’t tell you what will happen to you. But if you do want to know the survival rates, you can click the link below. You may find these statistics frightening or upsetting, so think carefully before looking at this information.

The statistics here are for pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, which is the most common type of pancreatic cancer. There is another type of pancreatic cancer called pancreatic neuroendocrine tumour (PancNET). If you have been diagnosed with PancNET, speak to your doctor about your prognosis.

You should speak to your doctor if you want to know about your prognosis. You can also speak to our specialist nurses on our free Support Line with any questions about pancreatic cancer, prognosis, and for emotional support.

What do one year and five year survival mean?

The terms “one year survival” and “five year survival” mean the proportion of people who are still alive one year and five years after their cancer diagnosis. It doesn’t mean that this is how long you will live.

Five year survival for all pancreatic cancers in the UK is 7%. The survival statistics are low for pancreatic cancer compared to other cancers. This is partly because pancreatic cancer is hard to diagnose. Many people are diagnosed late, when the cancer has spread and surgery to remove the cancer is not possible.

What are the survival rates for locally advanced pancreatic cancer?

One year survival for stage 3 pancreatic cancer in England is 33%. This means that 33 people out of 100 are still alive after one year. Stage 3 cancer is usually locally advanced cancer but it may occasionally be borderline resectable cancer.

If you have locally advanced cancer, the cancer has started to spread, which means that surgery is not usually possible. You may be able to have chemotherapy on its own or together with radiotherapy (chemoradiotherapy). This aims to try to shrink the cancer and slow down its growth. For a small number of people, this treatment may shrink the cancer enough to make surgery to remove the cancer possible.

What are the survival rates for advanced pancreatic cancer?

One year survival for stage 4 pancreatic cancer in England is 9%. Stage 4 cancer is advanced or metastatic cancer. The cancer has spread outside the pancreas to other parts of the body, and surgery to remove it isn’t possible. Advanced cancer can sometimes grow and spread quickly.

If you are well enough, you may be able to have chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy won’t cure the cancer, but it may help you to live longer. It can also help treat your symptoms. You can also have other treatments to manage symptoms.

Remember that these statistics are general figures. Speak to your doctor about your own prognosis – if you want to know this.

Speak to our specialist nurses

We know that thinking about prognosis can be upsetting. You can speak to our nurses on our Support Line at any time to get support and find out more about prognosis.

Speak to our nurses
Specialist nurse Dianne

"I think the most difficult aspect of dealing with pancreatic cancer is the uncertainty that inevitably comes with it. But all of this has brought my family closer together."

Read other people's stories

Read about other people’s experiences of being diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer, having treatment and dealing with symptoms.

Stories about inoperable cancer

Published September 2020

To be reviewed September 2022