Who can have surgery for pancreatic cancer?

This page explains who can have an operation to remove pancreatic cancer, and why surgery may not be possible for some people.

Surgery is the best treatment for people with pancreatic cancer that has not spread outside the pancreas. It can help people live longer. Cancer that can be removed by surgery is called resectable or operable cancer.

Only a small number of people can have surgery. This is partly because pancreatic cancer is often diagnosed when it has spread and can no longer be removed. Surgery may only be an option if there is no sign the cancer has spread.

If you have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, you will have scans to check whether surgery is an option for you. Your medical team will look carefully at these scans to work out if surgery is possible.

You also need to be fit and well enough to have surgery and will have tests to check this. Some hospitals offer programmes to help people get fit enough. This is called prehabilitation. It focuses on diet and physical activity, and can help you recover more quickly after surgery. Read more about the tests and preparing for surgery.

When is surgery not an option?

Surgery is not suitable for everyone.

  • It may not be possible if you have some other health problems, such as severe heart or lung disease.
  • It is usually not possible if you have locally advanced cancer. This is cancer that has spread outside the pancreas to large blood vessels, or to lymph nodes further from the pancreas (see below). Lymph nodes are part of the immune system.
  • It is not possible if you have advanced (metastatic) cancer. This is cancer that has spread to other parts of the body.

Your doctor will explain whether surgery is an option. If it isn’t, they may offer you chemotherapy. This uses drugs to kill cancer cells. It may slow the growth of the cancer and help with symptoms. There are also other treatments to help manage symptoms.

If the cancer is close to major blood vessels

Sometimes the cancer may grow very close to large blood vessels near the pancreas. It may be possible to have surgery to remove the cancer. This will depend on which blood vessels are affected and how far the cancer has grown.

This is called borderline resectable pancreatic cancer. Your doctor may not call it this, they may just focus on whether your cancer can be removed with surgery.

You may be offered chemotherapy, sometimes with radiotherapy (chemoradiotherapy). If the cancer is just touching an artery or vein, chemotherapy may shrink the cancer so that surgery is then possible. The operation will usually happen around 6–8 weeks after you finish chemotherapy, although this can vary. The surgeon might also need to remove part of the affected vein (called a vein resection).

But if the cancer has grown around the artery or vein, surgery is less likely to be possible, even after chemotherapy.

The pancreas is shown in dark purple, with the spleen in yellow on the right (next to the tail of the pancreas) and the duodenum curving round to the left, around the pancreas head. The portal vein and the aorta are shown going vertically past (next to) the pancreas, with smaller blood vessels connecting them to the spleen and other structures in the body.

If it is not possible to remove the cancer, your doctor will talk to you about other treatments, such as chemotherapy. This won’t cure the cancer, but it may help your symptoms and help you live longer.

Speak to your doctor or nurse about whether surgery is an option for you, and whether you will have chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Getting a second opinion

It can be difficult to tell how close the cancer has grown to blood vessels and whether it is possible to remove it. This means that different medical teams may have different opinions about whether surgery is possible. If your medical team don’t think it’s possible you can ask for a referral for a second opinion from a different team. This may mean going to a different hospital. Be aware that the second team may have the same opinion.

What happens if the surgeon can’t remove the cancer during surgery?

Sometimes the surgeon may start the operation, but find that they can’t remove the cancer. For example, the cancer may have:

  • spread to your liver or the lining of your abdomen (tummy area)
  • grown into or around major blood vessels that can’t be removed.

If this happens, the surgeon may switch to a different operation called bypass surgery. This won’t remove or treat the cancer, but it can help with symptoms.

Bypass surgery is still a major operation. Recovery can take at least two to three months. The information about what happens after surgery, side effects and going home after your operation may be helpful.

Finding out that it wasn’t possible to remove the cancer can be upsetting. We are here for you. Read about the support available.

Questions about your treatment

Speak to your doctor or nurse about whether surgery is an option for you, and whether you will have chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

You can also speak to our specialist nurses on our free Support Line with any questions about your treatment or getting a second opinion.

Speak to our nurses
PCUK Specialist Nurse, Dianne Dobson, taking a Support Line call on the phone

Questions to ask your doctor or nurse

  • Can I have surgery to remove the cancer?
  • Is the cancer affecting any major blood vessels?
  • Will I need chemotherapy or radiotherapy before my surgery?
  • What happens if the surgeon can’t remove the cancer?

Read more

If you have just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that can be removed, you can download our booklet for more information: Pancreatic cancer that can be removed by surgery: A guide if you have just been diagnosed.

Read about chemotherapy in our fact sheet, Chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer.

You can also order these, and our other publications, for free.

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Updated January 2024

Review date January 2026