Pancreatic cancer patients are faced with many challenges and obstacles during the course of treatment. The exact issues vary from patient to patient, and may be determined by the stage of the cancer at the time of diagnosis. Stage one pancreatic cancer may be more treatable, with medications being administered less aggressively than with patients who have end stage variations of the disease.
Pancreatic cancer occurs when healthy cells transform, or mutate, and begin growing rapidly. These cells begin to take over and destroy healthy cells that make up the tissues in various organs and bodily systems. The rate at which this occurs depends on the cancer, as some grow faster than others. Eventually, the number of mutant cells outnumbers healthy ones, and failure of the body’s systems begins to take effect.
There are three main treatment options pancreatic cancer patients may undergo: chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. In some cases all three will be used, while in others, only one may be needed. The quantities and duration of medications and surgeries will depend on how aggressive the cancer is and how far it has spread. Each of these treatments can have major side effects for the patient.
Chemotherapy refers to the use of powerful drugs, used alone or in combination with one another, that are generally administered intravenously. These drugs are potent at killing human cells, thereby making it a frequent choice in battling cancer. The downside to this treatment, however, is that it does not target and kill only cancer cells, but healthy cells as well. This can lead to conditions like anemia, lowered immune function, nausea, vomiting, hair loss, and fatigue.
Pancreatic cancer patients who undergo chemotherapy must understand that it is a very powerful drug with very powerful side effects. Patients are often confined to their beds, sometimes in a hospital setting. Visitation and social interaction may be limited to lower the risk of illness due to their weakened immune systems. Often, patients become very ill during treatment and do not feel up to performing daily tasks.
Other times, radiation treatment is used either instead of in addition to chemotherapy. This type of therapy causes many of the same symptoms as chemotherapy, and due to the harsh nature of the treatment, it is often used for more progressed cancers. Pancreatic cancer patients who undergo radiation are often bedridden.
Surgery may be performed for one of two reasons. The first would be to remove the cancer in the hopes of following the procedure with other treatments in order to send the cancer into remission. This is often possible in earlier forms of the cancer. The second reason for surgery would be to remove parts of the cancer that may be causing pain or discomfort to the patient.
Side effects of surgery often include soreness at the incision site. This can last several days. Medications may be administered to provide pain relief, meaning that patients are often confined to a bed. After the initial recovery from surgery is complete, patients generally move on to other treatments or are made as comfortable as possible while the cancer continues to invade their bodies.
Pancreatic cancer patients also face many challenges not directly related to treatment. Telling loved ones and colleagues about the illness is often the first of many difficult conversations. Children may be confused and scared, and must be comforted even as patients struggle with their own feelings.
In incurable cancers where death is almost certain, patients must come to grips with the prospect of dying. Finalizing legal documents such as wills and custody arrangements must be completed during a time when most patients would rather spend every second with loved ones. Some may decide to forgo life-prolonging treatments to avoid additional suffering during their last days, while others continue to fight until the very end.
These decisions must be made by each individual patient, but can be made more difficult by the advice or protests of loved ones. Patients must deal with their own feelings of fear and doubt, while also providing comfort to those they’ll leave behind. This can be the most difficult part of any patient’s cancer journey.
Cancer survivors also have many obstacles to overcome. Paying medical bills and re-adjusting to life after cancer can be difficult. Many pancreatic cancer patients become worried that the cancer will return, and may need counseling or medication for post-traumatic stress disorder. Fortunately, with the proper support system and medical guidance, most cancer survivors can move on to the next phase of their lives with great success.