Pancreatic Cancer: Common myths and how we can address it

By Imran Siddiqui, MD, FACS

Dr. Siddiqui specializes in hepatopancreaticobiliary (HPB) Surgery at St. Vincent's Medical Center in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

As a pancreatic surgeon, I encounter patients with a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. During my interactions with them, I have noticed some common myths and biases associated with such a diagnoses.

"I have a terminal disease and no matter what,
I am going to die in a few months."

Fact: Pancreatic cancer is certainly an aggressive cancer.  However, it is treatable. Treatment consists of a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.  There are several new treatment modalities as well as clinical trials. Patient who  undergo treatment for pancreatic cancer can expect to have outcomes from cure to prolongation of survival depending on the stage and the aggressiveness of cancer.

In an effort to educate and empower patients and their loved ones, I will provide some clarity to some common questions and concerns about pancreatic cancer and treatment.
Q: Is surgery for pancreatic cancer unsafe?

A: Surgery for pancreatic cancer has been performed over 50 years. Due to advancement in surgical technique as well as perioperative care, these surgeries are safe and are increasingly performed. It is important to note that the surgeries are complex - and must be performed by a highly trained specialist. 

Q: Am I too old for treatment/surgery?

A: Surgery for pancreatic cancer can be performed safely in patients into their eighties. However, a decision on whether a patient who is elderly can withstand surgery depends on several factors. That decision should be made in consultation with the patient, the family, the surgeon, as well as all physicians involved in the patient's care.

Q: Can pancreatic cancer go away with chemotherapy and radiation?

A: Chemotherapy and radiation are treatment options in pancreatic cancer. However, to remove cancer a patient would require surgery.

Q: Why do some people receive chemotherapy/radiation before surgery and some after?

A: Depending on characteristics of the pancreatic cancer, its size, location, and proximity to important blood vessels, as well as characteristics of the patient, decisions about the timing of chemotherapy and radiation are made in consultation with the medical oncologist and radiation oncologist who are treating the patient.

Typically, if a tumor is small, removal surgery is offered first followed by chemotherapy and/or radiation. If the tumor is large and is in close proximity to important blood vessels, chemotherapy and/or radiation is offered first followed by surgery.

Q: Will surgery for pancreatic cancer will leave me in the hospital/nursing home forever?

A: Absolutely not. Less invasive surgeries can be performed laparoscopically or robotically. Each surgical recovery is different, however, most patients are discharged from the hospital  7 to14 days after surgery. Complete recovery from surgery can take anywhere from 6 to12 weeks.

Q: Will I be able to go back to my work and my hobbies after surgery?

A:  Patients who have recovered completely from surgery, not only go back to enjoying everyday life, they do so knowing they have beaten pancreatic cancer - often with a new found appreciation and zest for life.

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