Pancreatectomy (Removal of the Pancreas)
A pancreatectomy is surgery to remove all or a portion of your pancreas. Your doctor may recommend it if you have pancreatic cancer or severe and chronic pancreatitis.
This could require certain lifestyle adjustments during your recovery.
In the case of a total pancreatectomy, these changes may be more pronounced and have a longer-lasting impact.
But your UPMC Hillman Cancer Center surgical team will work with you to get you back to your normal life.
What Is a Pancreatectomy?
A pancreatectomy is when a surgeon removes part of or all of the pancreas.
The pancreas is a large gland behind the stomach, and it serves two crucial functions:
- Producing enzymes, which are essential for digesting food.
- Secreting hormones, including insulin, which helps regulate blood sugar levels.
Are There Different Types of Pancreas Removal Surgery?
Yes. At UPMC Hillman, we offer various types of pancreatectomy surgeries to address specific medical needs.
One of the frequently performed pancreatic surgeries is a pancreaticoduodenectomy — or Whipple surgery.
During a Whipple, the surgeon typically removes:
- Part of the pancreas.
- Part of the small intestine.
- All of the bile duct.
- All of the gallbladder.
- A small part of the stomach.
- Several lymph nodes.
Your surgeon will then reconnect the pancreas, stomach, and bile duct to the intestine.
There are other partial pancreas removal surgeries, but the Whipple is the most commonly recommended.
During this operation, the surgeon removes a precise part of the pancreas known as the distal portion. It's located toward the tail end of the pancreas.
Often, but not always, the surgeon will also remove the spleen.
Unlike the Whipple, a distal pancreatectomy leaves the small intestine, bile duct, gallbladder, and stomach intact.
A total pancreatectomy removes the entire organ.
This option is for highly specific and tailored circumstances, based on your medical condition.
Total pancreatectomy also includes removing all or part of other organs, such as:
- The spleen.
- The gallbladder.
- Nearby lymph nodes.
- Part of the intestine.
- Part of the stomach.
Your care team will decide what surgery is best based on the size and location of your tumors. The presence of benign or precancerous conditions is also a factor.
Pancreatectomy Surgery FAQ
Is pancreatectomy a major surgery?
Removing any organ is a major surgery.
Pancreas removal requires surgeons with special training and expertise.
Can a person live without a pancreas?
You can live without a pancreas, but you'll need to:
- Make some lifestyle changes.
- Take medications to help with digestion and glucose control.
- Get insulin shots since your body can no longer make enough.
Pancreatectomy Benefits and Risks
Doctors will only suggest a total pancreatectomy if you have a serious illness. Like any other major surgery, it has benefits and risks.
Removing your pancreas:
- Can extend your life or improve your quality of life.
- Can reduce pain and other health issues caused by chronic pancreatitis.
- May stop the spread of cancer throughout your body.
Pancreas removal is a complex surgery.
As with any surgery, risks include bleeding, infection, breathing, or heart problems.
Pancreas removal also carries specific risks, such as:
- Fluids leaking from the pancreas, bile duct, stomach or intestine.
- Problems emptying the stomach after surgery.
- Weight loss.
What's the main complication of a pancreatectomy?
The pancreas plays a crucial role in making insulin and digestive enzymes in the body.
After removing it, there's a chance of developing diabetes or pancreatic insufficiency. Symptoms of pancreatic insufficiency include weight loss and diarrhea.
Without a working pancreas, you'll rely on lifelong insulin and digestive enzyme supplements to effectively manage your health.
Conditions We Treat with Pancreatectomies
We use surgery to treat pancreatic cancer and severe pancreatitis.
Pancreatic cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in the pancreas. Cancer may stay in the pancreas, or it may spread. You may not have symptoms until it has spread to other organs.
Pancreatitis is a long-term (chronic) inflammation of the pancreas. It can cause extreme pain and the inability to digest food.
Common causes include:
- An infection.
- An injury.
- Heavy alcohol use.
Your doctor may suggest surgery if you have chronic pancreatitis that hasn't improved with other treatments.
What to Expect Before, During, and After a Pancreatectomy
Your doctor will go over what to expect from your procedure.
Here's an overview.
You'll meet with your surgeon and your surgical team.
They'll make sure any existing health conditions are properly managed and under control, such as:
- Heart problems.
- High blood pressure.
- Lung problems.
Your doctor will order tests before the surgery.
These might include:
- A chest x-ray.
- A CT scan.
- An electrocardiogram (EKG).
- An endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) to check the bile and pancreatic ducts.
- Blood work, including complete blood count (CBC), electrolyte levels, liver function tests, and kidney function tests.
Your surgeon may ask you to stop taking blood thinners before the surgery. Your care team will tell you which medicines are okay to take on the day of your surgery.
Your surgeon will ask you to stop smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. Quitting these habits will help with a smoother and more effective recovery.
On surgery day, let your doctor know how you're feeling. A cold, flu, fever or other illness may increase the risk of post-op complications and cause them to postpone surgery.
You won't be able to eat or drink anything for several hours before the surgery. Your doctor will give you detailed instructions.
You will be asleep during the surgery.
The doctors will give anesthesia through an IV line. You'll have a tube in your throat to help you breathe and a catheter to drain urine.
Your surgical team will work to ensure your safety and comfort while removing all or part of your pancreas.
The length of the surgery can vary depending on how complex your condition is. On average, a pancreatectomy can take anywhere from five to seven hours.
We'll admit you to the hospital for close monitoring. Based on your surgeon's assessment, you may wake up in the ICU or on a regular hospital floor.
You'll get fluids and pain medicine through your IV to manage discomfort and maintain hydration.
You may have drains in your abdomen to prevent fluid build-up. You may also have a tube in your nose to drain your stomach contents after the surgery.
Nurses will help you get out of bed and move around on the first day after surgery. This is essential for a smoother recovery.
Your care team will watch your blood sugar levels and digestion after the surgery.
How Long Does It Take to Recover from a Pancreatectomy?
You will probably stay in the hospital for six to 10 days after surgery, barring any problems. Your recovery will then take place at home.
Healing from pancreas removal surgery will take at least a month or two.
Recovery time depends on:
- How complex the surgery was.
- If any complications develop.
- Whether you have other health issues.
Throughout your recovery, it's crucial to have regular follow-up appointments with your doctor. They may need to adjust your medications over time to ensure your ongoing health and well-being.
Your care team will provide guidance and support as you progress through the post-op healing process.
Contact Us About Pancreatic Cancer Care
To learn more about pancreatic cancer care or to make an appointment, you can:
- Call 412-647-2811.
- Contact a UPMC Hillman Cancer Center near you.