What is advanced pancreatic cancer?

Advanced pancreatic cancer means the cancer has spread from where it started, or has come back some time after treatment (recurrence). 

Pancreatic cancer can be quite advanced when it is first diagnosed. You may not have had any symptoms when it was in its early stages, or they may have been vague and difficult to spot.

Unfortunately advanced cancer can’t usually be cured. But treatment might control it, help symptoms, and improve your quality of life for a while.

Locally advanced disease

This means the cancer has spread into nearby large blood vessels and possibly the lymph nodes. It may have spread into the stomach, bile duct or small bowel (duodenum), but not to organs further away in the body.

In a few people, treatment with chemotherapy and radiotherapy may shrink the cancer enough to make surgery possible.

Metastatic disease

This means that the cancer has spread through the bloodstream, or the lymphatic system, to other organs in the body. The most common place for it to spread to is the liver.

It could also spread to areas such as the:

  • lining of the bowel or abdomen (the peritoneum)
  • lungs
  • bones

Cancer that has spread to other organs in the body is called secondary cancer or metastases.


Many people want to know what the outlook is and how their cancer will develop. This is different for each person. Your cancer specialist has all the information about you and your cancer. They're the best person to discuss this with.

You can also talk to your specialist nurse.

For information and support, you can phone the Cancer Research UK nurses on 0808 800 4040, from Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.

Treatment options

Even if your cancer can't be cured, treatment is available to control your symptoms. The treatment might shrink the cancer, slow it down and help some people live longer.

Treatments can include chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgery.

The choice of treatment that is best for you depends on:

  • where in the body the cancer has spread
  • the size and number of any secondary cancers
  • the treatment you have already had
  • your general health

You might also need pain control with pain killing drugs or nerve blocks.

You might be able to join a clinical trial. These may be trials for new chemotherapy drugs, new types of pain control or new types of treatment.

Deciding about treatment

When you have advanced cancer it can be difficult to decide which treatment to try, if any. It is important for you to consider everything. This includes possible side effects and travelling to the hospital for appointments and treatment.

Most importantly, you will need to understand what can be achieved with any treatment. Your doctor will discuss the treatment options with you. And there may be a counsellor or specialist nurse you could chat to.

You may also want to talk things over with a close relative or friend. You may want to look at our information about counselling.

Last reviewed: 
08 Oct 2019
  • Pancreatic cancer in adults: diagnosis and management
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), February 2018

  • Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (11th edition)
    VT DeVita, TS Lawrence, SA Rosenberg
    Wolters Kluwer, 2019

  • Cancer of the Pancreas: European Society Medical Oncology Clinical Practice Guidelines
    M Ducreux and others
    Annals of Oncology, 2015. Volume 26, Supplement 5, Pages 56-68

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