How is surgery for pancreatic cancer carried out?

You may have your pancreatic cancer surgery as open surgery or keyhole (laparoscopic) surgery. This page explains what is involved.

When you have your surgery, you will have a general anaesthetic. This means you will be asleep and won’t feel anything. You may have open surgery or keyhole (laparoscopic) 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-assisted surgery is a type of keyhole surgery where the surgeon uses a computer to control the instruments.

Keyhole surgery is not suitable for everyone. If you are having a distal pancreatectomy, keyhole surgery might be an option at some specialist centres. It is used less often for a Whipple’s operation.

Sometimes the surgeon will start keyhole surgery and find 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.


  • Surgery is the only treatment that can remove pancreatic cancer. It can help you live longer.
  • Some symptoms, such as jaundice (yellow skin and eyes), pain and problems digesting food , may improve after surgery.
  • Other treatments may be an option if the cancer comes back after surgery, including chemotherapy. These will aim to slow the growth of the cancer and improve symptoms.


  • As with any major operation, there are some risks (see below).
  • You will need to stay in hospital for a while afterwards. This may be for one to 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 longer.
  • 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. Speak to your surgeon or nurse about how they will check for these risks and manage them.

  • Any major operation has a risk of bleeding and you may need a blood transfusion (where you are given blood through a drip). Your medical team will manage this if it happens.
  • You may get an infection such as a chest or wound infection. You will be given antibiotics to reduce this risk.
  • The place where the surgeon joins the pancreas, bile duct or stomach to the small intestine could leak. Read more about pancreatic leaks.
  • Any major operation has a risk of a blood clot in a vein after surgery, called deep vein thrombosis (DVT). You can reduce this risk by wearing support stockings. You may also need daily injections of a blood thinning medicine afterwards to prevent blood clots.
  • The general anaesthetic may cause problems, such as an allergic reaction. This is very rare.
  • There is a small risk of dying during or soon after the surgery.

Updated January 2024

Review date January 2026