Chemotherapy & Targeted Drugs for Pancreatic Cancer

Doctors at NYU Langone’s Perlmutter Cancer Center may prescribe chemotherapy, a group of drugs that helps 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, in which energy beams are used to remove cancer cells, the two are often combined in an approach called chemoradiation.

Chemotherapy 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 therapy, called chemoradiation, 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 relieve discomfort and improve your ability to eat if the tumor is interfering with nearby digestive organs, such as the stomach or intestines.

Targeted Therapy

Targeted therapies pinpoint and kill cancer cells while avoiding healthy tissue. For example, doctors may prescribe pembrolizumab, an anti-PD1 immunotherapy that was recently approved for advanced pancreatic tumors that have a defect in the ability to repair DNA.

At Perlmutter Cancer Center, all pancreatic cancer tumors are tested for genetic alterations that may respond to targeted therapies.

Managing Side Effects

Our doctors 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 care and integrative health services.

Clinical Trials

Perlmutter Cancer Center has a large portfolio of clinical trials of new targeted drugs for pancreatic cancer that are used in combination with different chemotherapy drugs, radiation therapy, or other targeted therapies. Our goal is to improve immunotherapeutic options for more people with pancreatic cancer.

We have one of the nation’s largest research teams funded to study advances in pancreatic cancer treatments.

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 via surgery. You and your doctor can discuss whether a clinical trial is right for you.

Clinical Trials

You may be eligible to participate in a pancreatic cancer clinical trial.

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