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Whipple Surgery: What You Need to Know


Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

If you have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer your doctor may recommend a procedure called Whipple surgery.

What Is Whipple Surgery?

Also known as pancreatoduodenectomy, this approach involves removing the head, or right-hand portion, of the pancreas, where most tumors occur. Because of the location of this organ, surgeons also remove parts of the small intestine, gallbladder, bile duct, and sometimes a portion of the stomach. Although Whipple surgery is quite complex, it may help extend life following the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Here’s what you need to know about this surgery.

Is Whipple Surgery Right for You?

Although Whipple surgery is the most common operation to remove pancreatic cancer, it is only recommend for about 20 percent of patients.

To be eligible, your cancer must be confined to the head of the pancreas and cannot have spread to other organs. Your doctor will administer a variety of tests to determine if you qualify for the procedure. Depending on its size, your doctor may recommend radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy to shrink the tumor prior to surgery. By shrinking the tumor, your surgeon may be able to remove less of the pancreas during the operation.

What Happens During Whipple Surgery?

Traditional Whipple surgery takes place under general anesthesia and can take several hours. Because the procedure is so complicated, your surgeon should be very skilled and have experience performing it. Once he or she has removed the tumor and the surrounding areas, your surgeon will reconnect the remaining portions of the pancreas, intestines, and bile duct.

What Should You Expect After Whipple Surgery?

Because the procedure involves invasive surgery, you will likely need to remain in the hospital for 10 to 14 days after pancreatic surgery. Your healthcare team will monitor you for possible complications, such as:

  • Infection
  • Bleeding
  • Leaking of pancreatic juices from the incision

While some patients may experience unwanted weight loss or diabetes, most people who undergo Whipple surgery have no long-term complications.

To address post-surgical pain, you will receive pain-relieving medications. Because Whipple surgery affects the digestive system, you will initially only be able to eat small amounts of food. You may also experience temporary diarrhea. Within two to three months, your digestive system should be fully healed. Depending on your individual case, your doctor may recommend following Whipple surgery with chemotherapy, radiation, or both.

Are There Less-Invasive Options?

Yes. Some people with pancreatic cancer are eligible for a less-invasive form of surgery. During this procedure, known as minimally invasive Whipple surgery, or robotic Whipple surgery, the surgeon makes several small incisions in your abdomen, then utilizes a special instrument like the robotic surgery device.

Using the robot, your surgeon can guide the movement of these instruments. People who undergo minimally invasive Whipple surgery typically recover more quickly than those who undergo traditional Whipple surgery. Your doctor can tell you more about which surgical options are right for you.

To learn more about Whipple surgery and other treatments for pancreatic cancer, visit the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center online and schedule an appointment to speak with an expert.

UPMC CancerCenter

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

At UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, we are your doctors, caregivers, teachers, and support system. You are not alone in your fight against cancer, and we are committed to providing you the knowledge, inspiration, and specialty cancer care you need so you can face your diagnosis with confidence. We’re here for you – as part of the community – and that’s something cancer can never take away. Read More