by EBSCO Medical Review Board

Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill pancreatic cancer cells. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body. Targeted therapy attacks or blocks what the cancer needs to grow and spread.


Chemotherapy may be used:

  • Before surgery—to shrink the tumor so less tissue needs to be removed
  • After surgery—to kill leftover cancer cells and lower the risk of it coming back
  • To help ease problems of cancer that's spread and help with living longer

For this type of cancer, radiation therapy is most often used with chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy Drugs and Delivery

There are many types of these drugs. For pancreatic cancer, they work better when more than one is used. The choice and blend of drugs will be based on your cancer type and how you react to the drugs. The most common are:

  • Gemcitabine
  • Fluorouracil (5-FU)
  • Oxaliplatin
  • Cisplatin
  • Capecitabine
  • Irinotecan
  • Paclitaxel
  • Carboplatin
  • Docetaxel

Chemotherapy is most often given through an IV. But, some come in pill form. They're delivered in cycles over a set period. Your doctor will help find out how many cycles are needed and which drugs will work best.

Side Effects

Drugs are made to kill cancer, but they also harm healthy cells. The death of cancer cells and impact on healthy cells can cause a range of problems. The most common are:

  • Numbness, pain, or burning feeling in the hands and feet—peripheral neuropathy
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Low numbers of white blood cells or platelets that lead to infection or bleeding
  • Feeling very tired from anemia
  • Problems thinking clearly
  • Kidney damage

Targeted Therapy

Targeted therapy drugs attack cancer cells without harming healthy cells. Erlotinib is the only one used on pancreatic cancer. It's made to block a certain protein that makes the tumor grow. Erlotinib is given with gemcitabine.

Some problems are:

  • Rash, mainly on the face and neck
  • Diarrhea
  • Feeling tired
  • Loss of hunger

Managing Side Effects

There are many ways to control problems. In some cases, the drugs can be changed to lessen how they make you feel. The earlier these problems are brought up to your doctor, the more likely they will be controlled.


Chemotherapy and other drugs for pancreatic cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: Accessed October 3, 2020.

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

Pancreatic Adenocarcinoma. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: . Accessed October 3, 2020.

Treatment option overview. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: Accessed October 3, 2020.

Revision Information

  • Reviewer: EBSCO Medical Review Board Mohei Abouzied, MD, FACP
  • Review Date: 09/2020
  • Update Date: 12/16/2020