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Reston Hospital Center
Pediatric Emergency Room

Chemotherapy for Pancreatic Cancer

Cancer chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Unlike radiation therapy and surgery, which are localized treatments, chemotherapy is a systemic treatment, meaning the drugs travel throughout the whole body. This means chemotherapy can reach cancer cells that may have spread to other areas.

Chemotherapy is usually combined with other types of treatment in an attempt to do the following:

  • Cure smaller, early-stage pancreatic cancer
  • Increase survival time in more advanced pancreatic cancer—this usually means only by a matter of months
  • Provide some symptom relief

Chemotherapy Drugs Used for Pancreatic Cancer

  • Fluorouracil (5-FU)
  • Gemcitabine
  • Gemcitabine plus erlotinib
  • Cisplatin
  • Streptozotocin for endocrine tumors

In some cases, experimental treatments using investigational agents may be used. Talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of these programs.


Gemcitabine, used alone or in combination with other chemotherapy agents, seems to improve the quality of life for those with pancreatic cancer. Chemotherapy with gemcitabine improves symptoms, including pain, nausea, and vomiting in about 25% of patients. It also provides a modest increase in survival (usually only a few months).

Fluorouracil is not associated with a survival benefit. Cisplatin and some other drugs have been used in combination with gemcitabine, but are associated with more side effects.

These drugs should be used with caution in the elderly, and in those with liver or kidney disease. The elderly are at an increased risk of side effects.

Revision Information

  • De La Cruz MD, Young AP, Ruffin MT. Diagnosis and management of pancreatic cancer. Am Fam Physician. 2014;89(8):626-632.

  • Lohr JM. Medical treatment of pancreatic cancer. Expert Rev Anticancer Ther. 2007;7(4):533-544.

  • Pancreatic cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: Accessed September 8, 2016.

  • Pancreatic cancer. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated July 6, 2016. Accessed September 8, 2016.

  • Pancreatic cancer. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: Updated July 2014. Accessed September 8, 2016.

  • Yip D, Karapetis C, Steer CB, Goldstein D. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy for inoperable advanced pancreatic cancer. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2006;3:CD002093.