Surgery for Pancreatic Cancer

Two general types of surgery can be used for pancreatic cancer :

Potentially curative surgery is used when the results of exams and tests suggest that it’s possible to remove (resect) all the cancer.

Palliative surgery may be done if tests show that the cancer is too widespread to be removed completely. This surgery is done to relieve symptoms or to prevent certain complications like a blocked bile duct or intestine, but the goal is not to cure the cancer.

Staging laparoscopy

To determine which type of surgery might be best, it’s important to know the stage (extent) of the cancer. But it can be hard to stage pancreatic cancer accurately just using imaging tests. Sometimes laparoscopy is done first to help determine the extent of the cancer and if it can be resected.

For this procedure, the surgeon makes a few small incisions (cuts) in the abdomen (belly) and inserts long, thin instruments. One of these has a small video camera on the end so the surgeon can see inside the abdomen and look at the pancreas and other organs. Biopsy samples of tumors and other abnormal areas can show how far the cancer has spread.

Potentially curative surgery

Studies have shown that removing only part of a pancreatic cancer doesn’t help patients live longer, so potentially curative surgery is only done if the surgeon thinks all of the cancer can be removed.

This is a very complex surgery and it can be very hard for patients. It can cause complications and might take weeks or months to recover from fully. If you’re thinking about having this type of surgery, it’s important to weigh the potential benefits and risks carefully.

Fewer than 1 in 5 pancreatic cancers appear to be confined to the pancreas at the time they are found. Even then, not all of these cancers turn out to be truly resectable (able to be completely removed). Sometimes after the surgeon starts the operation it becomes clear that the cancer has grown too far to be completely taken out. If this happens, the operation may be stopped, or the surgeon might continue with a smaller operation with a goal of relieving or preventing symptoms. This is because the planned operation would be very unlikely to cure the cancer and could still lead to major side effects. It would also lengthen the recovery time, which could delay other treatments.

Curative surgery is done mainly to treat cancers in the head of the pancreas. Because these cancers are near the bile duct, they often cause jaundice, which sometimes allows them to be found early enough to be removed completely. Surgeries for other parts of the pancreas are described below, and are done if it’s possible to remove all of the cancer.

Whipple procedure (pancreaticoduodenectomy)

This is the most common operation to remove a cancer in the head of the pancreas.

During this operation, the surgeon removes the head of the pancreas and sometimes the body of the pancreas as well. Nearby structures such as part of the small intestine, part of the bile duct, the gallbladder, lymph nodes near the pancreas, and sometimes part of the stomach are also removed. The remaining bile duct and pancreas are then attached to the small intestine so that bile and digestive enzymes can still go into the small intestine. The end pieces of the small intestine (or the stomach and small intestine) are then reattached so that food can pass through the digestive tract (gut).

Distal pancreatectomy

In this operation, the surgeon removes only the tail of the pancreas or the tail and a portion of the body of the pancreas. The spleen is usually removed as well. The spleen helps the body fight infections, so if it’s removed you’ll be at increased risk of infection with certain bacteria. To help with this, doctors recommend that patients get certain vaccines before this surgery.

This surgery is used to treat cancers found in the tail and body of the pancreas. Unfortunately, many of these tumors have usually already spread by the time they are found and surgery is not always an option.

Total pancreatectomy

This operation removes the entire pancreas, as well as the gallbladder, part of the stomach and small intestine, and the spleen. This surgery might be an option if the cancer has spread throughout the pancreas but can still be removed. But this type of surgery is used less often than the other operations because there doesn’t seem to be a major advantage in removing the whole pancreas, and it can have major side effects.

It’s possible to live without a pancreas. But when the entire pancreas is removed, people are left without the cells that make insulin and other hormones that help maintain safe blood sugar levels. These people develop diabetes, which can be hard to manage because they are totally dependent on insulin shots. People who have had this surgery also need to take pancreatic enzyme pills to help them digest certain foods.

Palliative surgery

If the cancer has spread too far to be removed completely, any surgery being considered would be palliative (intended to relieve symptoms). Because pancreatic cancer can spread quickly, most doctors don’t advise major surgery for palliation, especially for people who are in poor health.

Sometimes surgery might be started with the hope it will cure the patient, but once it begins the surgeon discovers this is not possible. In this case, the surgeon might do a less extensive, palliative operation known as bypass surgery to help relieve symptoms.

Stent placement

The most common approach to relieving a blocked bile duct does not involve actual surgery. Instead, a stent (small tube, usually made of metal) is put inside the duct to keep it open. This is usually done through an endoscope (a long, flexible tube) while you are sedated. Often this is part of an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). The doctor passes the endoscope down the throat and all the way into the small intestine. Through the endoscope, the doctor can then put the stent into the bile duct. The stent can also be put in place through the skin during a percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography (PTC).

The stent helps keep the bile duct open even if the surrounding cancer presses on it. But after several months, the stent may become clogged and may need to be cleared or replaced. Larger stents can also be used to keep parts of the small intestine open if they are in danger of being blocked by the cancer.

A bile duct stent can also be put in to help relieve jaundice before curative surgery is done (which would typically be a couple of weeks later). This can help lower the risk of complications from surgery.

Bypass surgery

In people who are healthy enough, another option for relieving a blocked bile duct is surgery to reroute the flow of bile from the common bile duct directly into the small intestine, bypassing the pancreas. This typically requires a large incision (cut) in the abdomen, and it can take weeks to recover from this. Sometimes surgery can be done through several small cuts in the abdomen using special long surgical tools.