Chemotherapy to Treat Pancreatic Cancer

Chemotherapy involves using drugs to destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be used alone, or in combination with other treatments, to treat pancreatic cancer; however, the disease is resistant to most available chemotherapy drugs. Medications used to treat pancreatic cancer include gemcitabine, erlotinib in combination with gemcitabine, and nab-paclitaxel in combination with gemcitabine.

Chemotherapy to Treat Metastatic Pancreatic Cancer

Chemotherapy may be used to shrink or slow the growth of metastatic pancreatic cancers for a time and help patients live longer, but it is not expected to cure the cancer. Pancreatic cancer that has spread (e.g., within the abdomen, to the liver, bones, brain, etc.) may be treated with gemcitabine alone, or in combination with albumin-bound paclitaxel (Abraxane), erlotinib (Tarceva), or capecitabine (Xeloda). A combination of 4 drugs—Folfirnox—also may be used. It consists 5-FU, leucovorin, irinotecan (Camptosar), and oxaliplatin (Eloxatin), and can have severe side effects.

In October 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved irinotecan liposome injection (Onivyde) in combination with fluorouracil and leucovorin to treat patients with advanced pancreatic cancer who had been treated with gemcitabine. Research shows that this treatment can improve survival in these patients to an average of 6.1 months. Onivyde may cause diarrhea, fatigue, nausea and vomiting, appetite loss, and other serious side effects.

How Chemotherapy Is Administered

The method of administration varies, depending upon the type of drug. In some cases, chemotherapy drugs are delivered through a needle in a vein, which is known as intravenous, or IV chemotherapy. Other drugs can be swallowed (oral chemotherapy). Chemotherapy may be administered on an outpatient basis or during a stay in the hospital.

Chemotherapy Side Effects

Because chemotherapy drugs travel through the bloodstream to every system of the body, chemotherapy is a systemic treatment. Widespread movement of the drugs throughout the body can cause many different side effects.

Cancer cells divide very rapidly. Chemotherapy drugs destroy cancer cells because they target cells that are dividing rapidly. However, there are many types of beneficial cells in the body that also divide rapidly and these cells can also be negatively affected by chemotherapy. Some of these cells and the side effects include the following:

  • Lining of digestive tract–nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, poor appetite, mouth sores
  • Hair roots–loss of hair
  • Blood cells–anemia (weakening of red blood cells' ability to carry oxygen), reduced blood clotting ability, and reduced immune (disease-fighting) response

Reducing Side Effects of Chemotherapy

Medicines and other treatments can help reduce side effects of chemotherapy. Factors such as the patient's age and overall health, and the types and quantity of drugs can affect the severity of chemotherapy side effects.

Updated by Remedy Health Media

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 14 Aug 1999

Last Modified: 23 Oct 2015