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Whipple Procedure and Pancreatic Cancer Surgery

Group of surgeons in lab coats

At Penn Medicine, we offer several surgical options, including the Whipple procedure, to treat pancreatic cancer. We are considered an ultra high volume center for pancreatic cancer surgeries, performing hundreds each year — the highest volume in the region. Our specialized surgeons, operating room staff, nurses and anesthesiologists have years of experience performing these complex surgeries, which helps to deliver the best possible outcomes to our patients.

At the time of diagnosis, pancreatic cancer has usually spread or it’s locally advanced to the point where it can’t be removed. Only about 15 to 20 percent of patients are candidates for surgery after a pancreatic cancer diagnosis.

Whipple Procedure and Other Surgical Options

Nearly every patient who has pancreatic cancer surgery will also be treated with chemotherapy. Whether you have chemotherapy before surgery, after surgery or both depends on the size and location of your tumor.

We offer the following surgical options to treat pancreatic cancer:

  • Whipple procedure - The Whipple procedure is done when tumors are on the right side of the pancreas. It is the most common surgical treatment option for pancreatic cancer, because most pancreatic tumors occur on the right side of the pancreas. During this procedure, the head of the pancreas is removed, along with part of the small intestine, part of the bile duct, the gallbladder and associated lymph nodes.
  • Distal Pancreatectomy - We perform a distal pancreatectomy when tumors are on the left side of the pancreas. During this procedure, the body and tail of the pancreas are removed. The spleen is often removed, as well.
  • Total Pancreatectomy - A total pancreatectomy involves the removal of the entire pancreas, spleen, gallbladder, bile duct, and some of the small intestine and stomach. It is the least common pancreatic cancer surgery and is most often done to treat conditions that may turn into pancreatic cancer. When the entire pancreas is removed, your body can no longer produce insulin and enzymes that aid in digestion. If you have a total pancreatectomy, you will need to take insulin and enzyme supplements for the rest of your life.

What to Expect

When we’re preparing for pancreatic cancer surgery, we want to ensure that you are medically fit to withstand a complex operation. If your tumor is initially inoperable, you may receive chemotherapy first in an attempt to shrink your tumor so it can be removed.

Pancreatic cancer surgeries last from two to five hours, and you can expect to recover in the hospital for three to seven days after your procedure.

For the first few days after your surgery, you won’t be able to eat or drink to allow your digestive system to heal. You’ll be given fluids intravenously until you are able to consume liquids, and we’ll give you specific instructions on when you can resume eating normally.

It may take more than two months to fully recover from your pancreas surgery.