'Unresectable' Pancreatic Cancer: Conceptual Challenges
November 15, 2007
Inoperable pancreatic adenocarcinoma is a dilemma that oncologists frequently encounter. Only 15% to 20% of patients are diagnosed when cancer of the pancreas is still surgically resectable. However, pancreaticoduodenectomy is the only curative option for this disease and should be offered to all patients who meet resection criteria and do not have significant comorbidities. For inoperable pancreatic cancer, the goals of treatment are to palliate symptoms and prolong life. Improved survival in locally advanced disease has been demonstrated with chemoradiation plus fluorouracil or with gemcitabine (Gemzar) alone. In metastatic disease, single-agent gemcitabine has been associated with improvement in symptoms and survival. Trials combining various chemotherapeutic agents with gemcitabine have not had a significant impact on overall survival, although meta-analyses suggest a small benefit. The targeted agent erlotinib (Tarceva) has shown a modest improvement in overall survival in combination with gemcitabine. This combination is another option for first-line therapy in patients with locally advanced or metastatic disease. Despite these recent advances, survival for patients with inoperable pancreatic cancer continues to be poor. Future investigations need to focus on understanding the molecular nature of this malignancy, with the goal of developing interventions based on this knowledge.