Pancreatic cancer is not curable, but improvements in pancreatic cancer treatment approaches may be responsible for rising survival rates for this cancer. Since pancreatic cancer symptoms rarely emerge early in the course of the disease, surgery often is not an option for this type of tumor. Instead, doctors use a combination of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and immunotherapy to eliminate as many cancer cells as possible in the body. Surgery for Pancreatic Cancer Most pancreatic cancer goes undetected until it reaches stage 4 (IV), when it is largely inoperable. But if the cancer is detected early, then doctors may be able to surgically remove all or part of the pancreas as part of the treatment strategy. The most common surgeries for pancreatic cancer are: Distal pancreatectomy, which removes the middle and end part of the pancreas, leaving the ‘head’ of the organ intact. Total pancreatectomy, which removes the entire pancreas, often along with portions of adjacent organs and structures like the stomach. Whipple procedure, possibly the most common surgery for pancreatic cancer, which removes the bulbous head of the pancreas, the gallbladder, the bile duct, part of the stomach and part of the small intestine. Surgery alone rarely comprises the entire treatment plan for pancreatic cancer. Most people who get surgery also receive a combination of radiation therapy, chemotherapy and sometimes immunotherapy as well. Radiation Therapy for Pancreatic Cancer Depending on the size and location of the pancreatic tumor, radiation therapy may be helpful in destroying cancer cells and shrinking the overall size of the malignancy. Radiation therapy may consist of X-ray beams targeted through the body at the tumor or tiny radioactive ‘seeds’ placed into or near the tumor inside the body. Both approaches can reduce the number and size of cancer cells within the pancreas. Chemotherapy for Pancreatic Cancer Most people with pancreatic cancer receive strong doses of medications designed to destroy cancer cells throughout the body. Equally as often, doctors administer combinations of drugs to fight tumor cells in many different ways. Chemotherapy agents for pancreatic cancer may be administered directly into the bloodstream (intravenous) or orally as pills. Sometimes people receive both intravenous and oral chemotherapy agents during pancreatic cancer treatment, which often lasts for many weeks at a time. Chemotherapy also can be combined with radiation treatments (chemoradiation therapy), which can increase the effectiveness of both approaches. Currently, nearly 20 individual drugs and four drug combinations are approved for use in pancreatic cancer. Your doctor will choose the right medications for you based on the molecular profile of your cancer and whether it has spread beyond the pancreas (whether it has metastasized, which is stage IV pancreatic cancer). Newer chemotherapy drugs target specific proteins or other aspects of cancer cells to destroy them or prevent them from multiplying. Because these drugs target only cancerous cells, they do not cause the same kinds of side effects as traditional chemotherapy drugs. Immunotherapy for Pancreatic Cancer Immunotherapy drugs represent the newest therapy for cancers of all kinds. These medications generally function in one of two ways: they flag cancer cells to make them more easily identifiable to the body’s natural immune system, or they remove the immune system’s natural ‘brake,’ which allows immune cells to respond more aggressively to malignancies. While immunotherapy drugs have shown promise in treating many types of cancer, pancreatic cancer is a very complex type of malignancy. Researchers continue to investigate ways to make immunotherapy more effective in fighting this difficult cancer. Participating in pancreatic cancer clinical trials can help researchers make breakthroughs more quickly to improve the success of immunotherapy in pancreatic cancer. Although pancreatic cancer remains incurable and difficult to treat, survival rates continue to rise and some patients live for years after initial diagnosis. Thanks to clinical research studies that inform new approaches to pancreatic cancer treatment, people with this type of cancer can enjoy a higher quality of life than ever before as they receive therapy to potentially send their cancer into remission.