If cancer has spread too far to be removed completely, any surgery being considered would be palliative (intended to relieve symptoms). Because pancreatic cancer can spread quickly, most doctors don’t advise major surgery for palliation, especially for people who are in poor health.
Sometimes surgery might be started with the hope it will cure the patient, but once it begins the surgeon discovers this is not possible. In this case, the surgeon might do a less extensive, palliative operation known as bypass surgery to help relieve symptoms.
Cancers growing in the head of the pancreas can block the common bile duct as it passes through this part of the pancreas. This can cause pain and digestive problems because bile can’t get into the intestine. The bile chemicals will also build up in the body, which can cause jaundice, nausea, vomiting, and other problems. There are two main options to relieve bile duct blockage in this situation:
Stent placement / ERCP
The most common approach to relieving a blocked bile duct does not involve actual surgery. Instead, a stent (small tube, usually made of metal) is put inside the duct to keep it open. This is usually done through an endoscope (a long, flexible tube) while you are sedated. Often this is part of an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). The doctor passes the endoscope down the throat and all the way into the small intestine. Through the endoscope, the doctor can then put the stent into the bile duct. The stent can also be put in place through the skin during a percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography (PTC). (See Tests for Pancreatic Cancer.)
The stent helps keep the bile duct open even if surrounding cancer presses on it. But after several months, the stent may become clogged and may need to be cleared or replaced. Larger stents can also be used to keep parts of the small intestine open if they are in danger of being blocked by cancer.
A bile duct stent can also be put in to help relieve jaundice before curative surgery is done (which would typically be a couple of weeks later). This can help lower the risk of complications from surgery.
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