How is surgery for pancreatic cancer carried out?

You may have your operation as open surgery or as keyhole surgery. This page explains what's involved.

When you have your surgery, you will have a general anaesthetic, so you will be asleep and won’t feel anything. There are two main ways of doing pancreatic cancer surgery: open surgery or keyhole (laparoscopic or robotic) surgery.

Open surgery is when one large cut (incision) is made in the tummy.

With keyhole surgery, several small cuts (about 1–2 cms) are made in the tummy. A long tube with a camera on the end is put into one hole. The camera guides the surgeon to put instruments through the other holes to do the operation. Robotic surgery is similar, but the surgeon controls the instruments through a computer.

Keyhole surgery is not suitable for everyone. In some specialist centres, it may be offered to some people who are having a distal pancreatectomy and, less often, to those having a Whipple’s procedure. Sometimes the surgeon will start keyhole surgery and find that it is more complicated than they expected. If this happens, they will switch to open surgery.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of surgery?

Surgery is the most effective treatment for pancreatic cancer. If it is an option for you, ask your doctor or nurse any questions you have.

Advantages

  • Surgery is the best treatment for removing the cancer and can help you live longer.
  • Some of your symptoms, such as jaundice, pain and problems with digestion may improve after surgery.
  • If the cancer does come back after surgery, you may be able to have further treatment with chemotherapy to control the cancer and your symptoms.

Disadvantages

  • Pancreatic surgery is major surgery and as with any major operation there are some risks (see below).
  • You will need to stay in hospital afterwards to recover. This may be between a week and two weeks, but could be longer if there are problems.
  • Depending on the type of surgery, it can take three to nine months to recover. For some people it could take up to a year to fully recover.
  • You may get side effects from surgery, such as problems digesting your food and diabetes. But the cancer may cause these symptoms even if you don’t have surgery.

What are the risks of surgery?

Surgery for pancreatic cancer can be complicated and as with any major surgery, there are some risks.

  • There is a risk of bleeding and you may need a blood transfusion. Your medical team will manage this if it happens. Any major operation has a risk of bleeding.
  • You may get an infection such as a chest or wound infection – you will be given antibiotics to reduce this risk.
  • There is a risk of a leak from where the pancreas, bile duct or stomach are joined to the small intestine. These leaks often heal without needing more treatment. Your surgeon may put a tube into your tummy during surgery to drain any fluids from a leak.
  • As with any major operation, there is a risk of a blood clot in a vein (deep vein thrombosis or DVT) after surgery. The risk can be reduced by wearing support stockings, and daily injections afterwards to prevent blood clots.
  • The general anaesthetic, which puts you to sleep during the operation, may cause problems. These are very rare. They include an allergic reaction.
  • There is a small risk of dying during or after the surgery.

Speak to your surgeon or nurse about the risks of your surgery and how they will check for these and manage them.

Published November 2021

Review date November 2023