Chemotherapy for Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer chemotherapy is a pancreatic cancer drugs treatment usually given intravenously but occasionally by mouth. There are many different types of chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer. These all have an effect on the cancer cells in various ways either by changing or interfering with differing functions of the cell cycle. Some pancreatic cancer chemotherapy drugs are used alone and others in a combination of two or more in an attempt to get better control over the disease.

Pancreatic cancer chemotherapy is given for three reasons, to increase the quality of life, manage the cancer and add to the length of life. Quality of life issues are important when considering chemotherapy in Metastatic pancreatic cancer where this has spread to the liver and is not curable.

Pancreatic cancer chemotherapy destroys tumor cells by preventing them from dividing. Pancreatic cancer drugs are sometimes required to minimize or counteract the side effects of chemotherapy. Strong healthy people are far more able to endure chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer than sick, incapacitated people.

Chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer can be administered combined with radiation treatment. This is most often used in the postoperative adjuvant setting and for people with locally progressed inoperable pancreatic cancer. The reason for using chemotherapy and radiation treatment at the same time is that the chemotherapy acts as a radiation sensitizer. This makes the radiation treatment more successful in controlling the tumor (pancreatic mass) in the irradiated field.

Three types of radiation treatment used are external beam radiation therapy, intra operative radiation therapy and stereotactic radiation. Radiation treatment for pancreatic cancer is used in three situations; they are, as a definitive treatment for locally advanced, inoperable pancreatic cancer, and as postoperative adjuvant therapy to decrease the risk of pancreatic cancer returning after surgery. In these two situations, it is combined with pancreatic cancer chemotherapy. It is also used as a method of pain relief, administered over ten to fifteen days and used alone.

As with all treatments, there are side effects. Pancreatic cancer chemotherapy side effects can be divided into general chemotherapy and drug specific side effects. Most people find side effects tolerable and treatable. However in a few pancreatic cancers, chemotherapy side effects can be important and occasionally life threatening.

General side effects of chemotherapy include nausea, a sense of unwellness, tiredness, a drop in blood counts and hair thinning. Individual pancreatic cancer drugs have their own specific side effects. Gemcitabine has side effects of flu like symptoms such as aches, fevers and tiredness, usually lasting two or three days after chemotherapy. Other side effects of Gemcitabine may include skin rashes, ankle swelling and a brief rise of liver blood tests. Very rarely an individual may experience kidney problems.

Radiation treatment side effects depend on what part of the body is being irradiated. For most with a pancreatic mass, the radiation field will be the pancreas itself. Sometimes though, radiation is directed at a site of bony cancer spread for pain control. Usually, irritation of the lining of the stomach and nausea are common side effects, together with tiredness and fatigue. Short term lowering of white blood cell and platelet counts can result and possibly mild, though long lasting darkening of skin and dryness in the mid back area may be experienced. This often fades over time.

Radiation treatment may increase the probability of developing pancreatic insufficiency. Supplementing pancreatic enzymes with each meal easily rectifies this.

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