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Pancreatic Cancer Surgery

What is the function of the pancreas?

The pancreas is situated behind the stomach and is connected to a section of the small intestine (the duodenum) via the pancreatic duct. Its main function is to manufacture insulin and other enzymes to assist the body in the digestion of food. The hormone insulin specifically helps break down glucose.

What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

If a cancerous tumour forms in the pancreas it can cause the following symptoms:

  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice).
  • Pain.
  • Loss of weight (otherwise unexplained).
  • Itchiness (caused by bile salts building up in the skin tissue).

Pancreatic cancer affects around 2,500 people in Australia annually.

How is pancreatic cancer treated?

Generally pancreatic cancer is treated either with a course of chemotherapy or surgery, or sometimes with a combination of both approaches.

What is involved in the surgical procedure?

The standard surgical procedure focuses on removing the cancerous tissue in the pancreas and. if necessary, in any surround tissue. This procedure is known as 'Whipple's Procedure'.

There are some additional procedures which are designed to help alleviate some of the common symptoms of pancreatic cancer. These are:

  • A procedure to make sure that the bile duct and duodenum do not close by inserting a stent (a small tube made of metal mesh). This makes it easier for the patient to eat and drink normally.
  • Gastric bypass - this is sometimes recommended to bypass any blockage in the intestine.
  • Staging laparoscopy - this is an investigative procedure to assess any spread of the cancer in sections of the abdomen which cannot be accurately assessed using a CT scan.

Check the section on the Whipples Procedure for more information on how to prepare for this procedure, more details of the procedure itself, recovery guidance and information on risks associated with this surgery.