Chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer

Chemotherapy is one of the main treatments for pancreatic cancer. It uses drugs to kill cancer cells.

Coronavirus and chemotherapy

If you are having chemotherapy, or have had chemotherapy in the last three months, you may be more at risk of becoming seriously ill if you get the coronavirus infection (COVID-19). This is because chemotherapy increases your risk of infections.

Your treatment may be changed to try to reduce the chance of you getting coronavirus.

Read about how coronavirus may affect people with pancreatic cancer

Key facts

  • Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. It is one of the main treatments for pancreatic cancer.
  • Chemotherapy is used in different ways, depending on your cancer diagnosis and how well you are.
  • There are different chemotherapy drugs used for pancreatic cancer. You may have one drug, such as gemcitabine. Or you may have several drugs together, including FOLFIRINOX, gemcitabine and capecitabine, and gemcitabine with nab-paclitaxel.
  • Sometimes chemotherapy is used with radiotherapy. This is called chemoradiotherapy.
  • Chemotherapy can make you more at risk of getting an infection. An infection is an emergency if you are having chemotherapy and needs treating straight away.
  • Chemotherapy can also cause other side effects. These can include fatigue (extreme tiredness), feeling and being sick, runny poo (diarrhoea), hair loss, and tingling or numbness in your fingers or toes.
  • There are ways to manage side effects. Tell your doctor or nurse if you have any side effects so that they can help.
  • Clinical trials are research studies involving people. They help doctors find new treatments or better ways of providing treatment. Some clinical trials are looking at chemotherapy and pancreatic cancer.
  • You will have regular check-ups and blood tests during chemotherapy to check you are well enough for each treatment.
  • After your chemotherapy has finished, you will have a CT scan every few months to check for any changes.

How chemotherapy is used for pancreatic cancer

Chemotherapy can be used in different ways. It can be used:

Diet and chemotherapy

Pancreatic cancer can cause problems with digestion. This causes symptoms such as weight and appetite loss, tummy pain, and changes to your poo. This can be managed with pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT). PERT can help you cope better with chemotherapy. If you have any of these symptoms and speak to your chemotherapy team, nurse, dietitian or GP about PERT.

Diabetes and chemotherapy

Diabetes is a condition where the amount of sugar in your blood is too high. If you have diabetes, speak to your oncologist, cancer nurse or diabetes nurse about how chemotherapy may affect your diabetes, and how to manage it. For example, some chemotherapy drugs are mixed in liquids which can affect your blood sugar levels. Steroids used to treat sickness may also affect blood sugar levels. Read more about how diabetes is managed if you have pancreatic cancer.

Our specialist nurse, Jeni, explains chemotherapy and who can have chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer.

Read our fact sheet about chemotherapy

To read more about chemotherapy, download our fact sheet, Chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer.

You can also order a physical copy.

Order our fact sheet
Page 1 chemotherapy fact sheet

Questions to ask your doctor or nurse


You might want to write down any questions you have for your doctor, to take with you. Here are some suggestions.

  • How long will I have chemotherapy for?
  • Will chemotherapy make surgery to remove my cancer possible?
  • Will chemotherapy help me live longer?
  • Are there any clinical trials that are suitable for me?
  • How many cycles of chemotherapy will I have?
  • What side effects might I get, how long will these last and what can help manage side effects?
  • How often will I have check-ups after chemotherapy?
  • What happens if chemotherapy doesn’t work?
  • Can I still go to work?
  • Will my immune system be affected during chemotherapy so do I need to be careful about who I come into contact with?
  • Apart from a digital thermometer, is there any other equipment which may be useful for me to keep at home?
  • How can I best prepare for chemotherapy?

Managing Chemotherapy online support sessions

We run regular, free online support sessions on Managing Chemotherapy. Hosted by a specialist nurse, they’ll give you the opportunity to ask any questions you might have and meet others in a friendly and informal setting.

Find out more and book your place

Speak to our specialist nurses

If you have any questions about chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer, speak to your medical team.

You can also speak to our specialist nurses on our free Support Line with any questions or worries about chemotherapy.

Contact our specialist nurses
Specialist nurse Tracey

References and acknowledgements


References

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

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the following people who reviewed our information on radiotherapy.

  • Dr Derek Grose, Consultant Clinical Oncologist, Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre
  • Claire Goulding, Lead HPB Cancer Nurse Specialist, University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust
  • Deborah Needham, Acute Oncology Nurse Specialist, James Paget University
    Hospital NHS Trust
  • Liz Whitby, HPB Clinical Nurse Specialist, University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust
  • Pancreatic Cancer UK Lay Information Reviewers
  • Pancreatic Cancer UK Specialist Nurses

Updated April 2022

Review date April 2024