Medications for Pancreatic Cancer

NYU Langone doctors may prescribe chemotherapy, a group of drugs that help destroy cancer cells, to manage pancreatic cancer.

Chemotherapy is sometimes combined with targeted drugs, which are designed to destroy cancer cells while sparing healthy cells. Targeted drugs may cause fewer side effects than chemotherapy, because they’re less likely to damage healthy tissues. Sometimes, these targeted drugs are given to people with pancreatic cancer who cannot have surgery.

Because chemotherapy increases the effectiveness of radiation therapy, which uses energy beams to destroy cancer cells, the two are often combined in an approach called chemoradiation.

Treatment Schedule

Most of the chemotherapy drugs used to treat pancreatic cancer are given through a vein with intravenous (IV) infusion. How often and how long these drugs are used varies from person to person.

One common chemotherapy drug, gemcitabine, is usually given once a week for up to 7 weeks, with an infusion that lasts about 30 minutes. This is followed by a weeklong rest. This cycle may be repeated several times.

Other pancreatic cancer chemotherapy drugs may be given for a few hours over the course of several days, every few weeks. Some drugs may be taken by mouth on a daily basis for a couple of weeks, followed by a weeklong rest.

Chemotherapy Before and After Surgery

Chemotherapy may be given alone or in combination with radiation before surgery to shrink large tumors located near important blood vessels. This improves the odds that the surgeon can remove the cancer. Chemoradiation may also be given after surgery to help prevent the tumor from returning.

Chemotherapy or chemoradiation may be the only treatment used in people who have advanced pancreatic cancer that has spread to organs such as the liver and lungs and therefore cannot benefit from surgery.

Our doctors may also prescribe chemotherapy or chemoradiation to ease pancreatic cancer symptoms, such as pain or weight loss. Because chemotherapy can shrink tumors, it can help to relieve discomfort and improve your ability to eat if the tumors are interfering with nearby digestive organs, such as the stomach or intestines.

Targeted Therapy

For people with advanced pancreatic cancer, doctors may add erlotinib, a form of targeted therapy, to chemotherapy. Erlotinib blocks an enzyme called epidermal growth factor receptor, which sits on the surface of cancer cells and signals them to grow. It is taken by mouth each day.

Managing Side Effects

Our physicians carefully manage chemotherapy and targeted drug dosages to help minimize side effects, which can include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, and mouth sores. Doctors provide medications to help control any side effects and offer a range of supportive and integrative health services.

Clinical Trials

NYU Langone is involved in clinical trials of several new targeted drugs that are used in combination with different chemotherapy drugs. 

Our researchers are also studying chemotherapy followed by chemoradiation to shrink tumors before surgery in people who have a tumor that is considered “borderline resectable,” meaning it may be especially difficult to remove. You and your doctor can discuss whether a clinical trial is right for you.

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