Pancreatic Cancer and Palliative Care

Understanding Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer is cancer of the pancreas gland. There are different types of pancreatic cancer. The most common type of pancreatic cancer occurs in the ducts that transport the pancreatic juices. This is called exocrine pancreatic cancer. A more rare type of pancreatic cancer is in the cells that make hormones. This is called endocrine or islet cell pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer can have many causes. Risk factors include smoking and being over 45 years of age, as well as having chronic inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis), cirrhosis of the liver, obesity, long-term diabetes, or a family history of pancreatic cancer or certain other genetic disorders. Other causes include a high-fat diet and long-term exposure to certain chemicals.

The first step to finding out if you have pancreatic cancer is a physical exam by your doctor.

Understanding Palliative Care

Palliative (pronounced “pal-lee-uh-tiv”) care is specialized medical care for people with serious illness. It focuses on providing you with relief from the symptoms, pain and stress of a serious illness like pancreatic cancer. The goal is to improve quality of life for both you and your family.

Palliative care is provided by a team of doctors, nurses, social workers and other specialists who work alongside your other doctors to give you an extra layer of support. It is appropriate at any age and at any stage of your illness. You can have it together with curative treatment.

Treating Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms—How Palliative Care Can Help

When pancreatic cancer first starts, there are often no symptoms. As it grows, you may start to notice changes. Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes) is one of the first symptoms you may notice. Most people have severe abdominal or back pain as the tumor grows.

When you have pancreatic cancer, you often experience intense pain as the tumors invade nerves and potentially spread to other places in the body. Pancreatic cancer symptoms can change quickly. The pain can get worse over the course of the disease.

Since palliative caregivers are experts at treating pain, they can prescribe whatever treatments will be the most effective, such as traditional pain medications, steroids or nerve blocks. They work with you to adjust your medicines in order to make you as comfortable as possible with the fewest side effects.

Treatments for pancreatic cancer include chemotherapy, radiation therapy and targeted therapy. Targeted therapy is a drug taken orally that interferes with specific parts of cancer cells, and blocks the growth and spread of pancreatic cancer.

If you have an early stage of pancreatic cancer, surgery may be an option. For cancer that’s spread beyond the pancreas and cannot be cured, chemotherapy, radiation and other types of therapies are used not to cure, but to extend life.

For the most benefit, a palliative care team should be brought in at the first diagnosis to start and ease discussions with you and your family about your goals for care. Palliative care specialists will objectively explain the pros and cons of each treatment. They’ll tell you about the possible side effects, when they are likely to occur, and what can be done to prevent or relieve them.

Once your treatment is complete, you’ll be tested regularly by your doctor to see if the pancreatic cancer has returned or spread. Very often, pancreatic cancer cannot be entirely cured even if it can be treated or slowed down.

Your palliative care team will help you weigh the side effects of treatments against the symptoms of the disease itself. The specialists can prescribe medicines to treat pain and other side effects, such as nausea from chemotherapy. They can also prescribe medicines and other support for anxiety and depression.

Your palliative care team will provide support not only for you, but also for your family. The stress on your family caregivers can be enormous. The team specialists will help your family understand the level of care that will be needed during your treatment and recovery. They will also answer any tough questions about your disease. And above all, they’ll help to improve your quality of life throughout the course of your illness.

Your team will be your sounding board and your first line of defense against any symptoms of pain, discomfort, depression or anxiety.

The team specialists will help you and your loved ones to make both large and small decisions. They will enhance communication between you, your family and your other doctors, and help you to clarify your goals for care.

These are some of the many benefits of palliative care.

How to Get Palliative Care

If you or a loved one needs palliative care, ask your doctor for a referral.

Finding a hospital in your area with a palliative care team is easy. Just go to for a state-by-state list. To find out if palliative care is right for you, take our quiz.

For more information on pancreatic cancer, visit the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

Podcast: Barbara and Laren’s Pancreatic Cancer Story