A pancreatectomy is the surgical removal of all or part of the pancreas. The pancreas is an organ about the size of a hand located in the abdomen in the vicinity of the stomach, intestines, and other organs. It lies behind the stomach and in front of the spine. The pancreas has two critical functions in the body:
- The production juices that help digest food
- The production of hormones such as insulin and glucagon that maintain optimal blood sugar levels and help the body use and store energy from food.
A pancreatectomy may be total, in which case the entire organ is removed, usually along with the spleen, gallbladder, common bile duct, and portions of the small intestine and stomach. A pancreatectomy may also be distal, meaning that only the body and tail of the pancreas are removed, leaving the head of the organ attached. 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." Pancreaticoduodenectomies are increasingly used to treat a variety of malignant and benign diseases of the pancreas. This procedure often involves removal of the regional lymph nodes as well.
Purpose of Pancreatectomy
A 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 (a part of the 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 the preferred treatment, 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). The stage of the cancer will determine whether the pancreatectomy to be performed should be total or distal.
A partial pancreatectomy may be indicated 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 a 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 the alcohol-induced disease, the pancreas is widely involved, therefore, surgical correction is almost impossible.
Diagnosis/Preparation of Pancreatectomy
Patients with symptoms of a pancreatic disorder 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), a specialized imaging technique to visualize the ducts that carry bile from the liver to the gallbladder. Tests may also include angiography , another imaging technique used to visualize the arteries feeding the pancreas, and needle aspiration cytology, in which cells are drawn from areas suspected to contain cancer. Such tests are required to establish a correct diagnosis for the pancreatic disorder and in the planning the surgery.
Since many patients with pancreatic cancer are undernourished, appropriate nutritional support, sometimes by tube feedings, may be required prior to surgery.
Some patients with pancreatic cancer deemed suitable for a pancreatectomy will also 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.