Pancreatectomy is the surgical removal of the pancreas. Pancreatectomy may be total, in which case the whole organ is removed, or partial, referring to the removal of part of the pancreas.
Pancreatectomy is the most effective treatment for cancer of the pancreas, an abdominal organ that secretes digestive enzymes, insulin, and other hormones. The thickest part of the pancreas near the duodenum (small intestine) is called the head, the middle part is called the body, and the thinnest part adjacent to the spleen is called the tail.
While surgical removal of tumors in the pancreas is preferred, it is only possible in the 10-15% of patients who are diagnosed early enough for a potential cure. Patients who are considered suitable for surgery usually have small tumors in the head of the pancreas (close to the duodenum, or first part of the small intestine), have jaundice as their initial symptom, and have no evidence of metastatic disease (spread of cancer to other sites).
Pancreatectomy is sometimes necessary when the pancreas has been severely injured by trauma, especially injury to the body and tail of the pancreas. While such surgery removes normal pancreatic tissue as well, the long-term consequences of this surgery are minimal, with virtually no effects on the production of insulin, digestive enzymes, and other hormones.
Chronic pancreatitis is another condition for which pancreatectomy is occasionally performed. Chronic pancreatitis—or continuing inflammation of the pancreas that results in permanent damage to this organ—can develop from long-standing, recurring episodes of acute (periodic) pancreatitis. This painful condition usually results from alcohol abuse or the presence of gallstones. In most patients with alcohol-induced disease, the pancreas is widely involved, therefore, surgical correction is almost impossible.
Pancreatectomy is only performed when surgery provides a clear benefit. Patients who have tumors that are obviously not operable should be carefully excluded from consideration.
Pancreatectomy sometimes entails removal of the entire pancreas, called a total pancreatectomy, but more often involves removal of part of the pancreas, which is called a subtotal pancreatectomy, or distal pancreatectomy, when the body and tail of the pancreas are removed. When the duodenum is removed along with all or part of the pancreas, the procedure is called a pancreaticoduodenectomy, which surgeons sometimes refer to as "Whipple's procedure." Pancreaticoduodenectomy is being used increasingly for treatment of a variety of malignant and benign diseases of the pancreas.
Regional lymph nodes are usually removed during pancreaticoduodenectomy. In distal pancreatectomy, the spleen may also be removed.
Patients with symptoms of a pancreatic disorder usually undergo a number of tests before surgery is even considered. These can include ultrasonography, x-ray examinations, computed tomography scans (CT scan), and endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), an x-ray imaging technique. Tests may also include angiography, an x-ray technique for visualizing the arteries feeding the pancreas, and needle aspiration cytology, in which cells are drawn from areas suspected to contain cancer. Such tests aid in the diagnosis of the pancreatic disorder and in the planning of the operation.
Some patients with pancreatic cancer deemed suitable for pancreatectomy will undergo chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. This treatment is aimed at shrinking the tumor, which will improve the chances for successful surgical removal. Sometimes, patients who are not initially considered surgical candidates may respond so well to chemoradiation that surgical treatment becomes possible. Radiation therapy may also be applied during the surgery (intraoperatively) to improve the patient's chances of survival, but this treatment is not yet in routine use. Some studies have shown that intraoperative radiation therapy extends survival by several months.
Patients undergoing distal pancreatectomy that involves removal of the spleen may receive preoperative medication to decrease the risk of infection.
Pancreatectomy is major surgery. Therefore, extended hospitalization is usually required. Some studies report an average hospital stay of about two weeks.
Removal of all or part of the pancreas can lead to a condition called pancreatic insufficiency, in which food cannot be normally processed by the body, and insulin secretion may be inadequate. These conditions can be treated with pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy, to supply digestive enzymes, and insulin injections, to supply insulin.
The mortality rate for pancreatectomy has improved in recent years to 5–10%, depending on the extent of the surgery and the experience of the surgeon. A study of 650 patients at Johns Hopkins Medical Institution, Baltimore, found that only nine patients, or 1.4%, died from complications related to surgery.
There is still, however, a fairly high risk of complications following any form of pancreatectomy. The Johns Hopkins study documented complications in 41% of cases. The most devastating complication is postoperative bleeding, which increases the mortality risk to 20-50%. In cases of postoperative bleeding, the patient may be returned to surgery to find the source of hemorrhage, or may undergo other procedures to stop the bleeding.
One of the most common complications from a pancreaticoduodenectomy is delayed gastric emptying, a condition in which food and liquids are slow to leave the stomach. This complication occurred in 19% of patients in the Johns Hopkins study. To manage this problem, many surgeons insert feeding tubes at the original operation site, through which nutrients can be fed directly into the patient's intestines. This procedure, called enteral nutrition, maintains the patient's nutrition if the stomach is slow to recover normal function. Certain medications, called promotility agents, can help move the nutritional contents through the gastrointestinal tract.
The other most common complication is pancreatic anastomotic leak. This is a leak in the connection that the surgeon makes between the remainder of the pancreas and the other structures in the abdomen. Most surgeons handle the potential for this problem by assuring that there will be adequate drainage from the surgical site.
Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer is the most lethal form of gastrointestinal malignancy. However, for a highly selective group of patients, pancreatectomy offers a chance for cure, especially when performed by experienced surgeons. The overall five-year survival rate for patients who undergo pancreatectomy for pancreatic cancer is about 10%; patients who undergo pancreaticoduodenectomy have a 4–5% survival at five years. The risk for tumor recurrence is thought to be unaffected by whether the patient undergoes a total pancreatectomy or a pancreaticoduodenectomy, but is increased when the tumor is larger than 3 cm and the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or surrounding tissue.
After total pancreatectomy, the body loses the ability to secrete insulin, enzymes, and other substances, therefore, certain medications will be required to compensate for this. In some cases of pancreatic disease, the pancreas ceases to function normally, then total pancreatectomy may be preferable to other less radical forms of the operation.
When pancreatectomy is performed for chronic pancreatitis, the majority of patients obtain some relief from pain. Some studies report that one half to three quarters of patients become free of pain.
Bastidas, J. Augusto, and John E. Niederhuber. "The Pancreas." In Fundamentals of Surgery, ed. John E. Niederhuber. Stamford: Appleton & Lange, 1998.
Mayer, Robert J. "Pancreatic Cancer." In Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, ed. Anthony S. Fauci, et al. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997.
Yeo, C. J., et al. "Six Hundred Fifty Consecutive Pancreaticoduodenectomies in the 1990s: Pathology, Complications, and Outcomes." Annals of Surgery 226 (Sept. 1997): 248-257.
Caroline A. Helwick
Chemotherapy—A treatment of the cancer with synthetic drugs that destroy the tumor either by inhibiting the growth of the cancerous cells or by killing the cancer cells.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)—A medical procedure used for diagnostic purposes where pictures of areas inside the body can be created using a magnet linked to a computer.
Pancreas—A large gland located on the back wall of the abdomen, extending from the duodenum (first part of the small intestine) to the spleen. The pancreas produces enzymes essential for digestion, and the hormones insulin and glucagon, which play a role in diabetes.
Pancreaticoduodenectomy—Removal of all or part of the pancreas along with the duodenum. Also known as "Whipple's procedure" or "Whipple's operation".
Pancreatitis—Inflammation of the pancreas, either acute (sudden and episodic) or chronic, usually caused by excessive alcohol intake or gallbladder disease.
Radiation therapy—A treatment using high energy radiation from x-ray machines, cobalt, radium, or other sources.
Ultrasonogram—A procedure where high-frequency sound waves that cannot be heard by human ears are bounced off internal organs and tissues. These sound waves produce a pattern of echoes which are then used by the computer to create sonograms or pictures of areas inside the body.