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How Effective Is Gemcitabine for Pancreatic Cancer?

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  • Written By: Kesha Ward
  • Edited By: M. C. Hughes
  • Last Modified Date: 06 November 2016
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Oncologists prescribe gemcitabine for pancreatic cancer. The anticancer medication has proven to be an effective treatment that works by interfering with the spread of cancer cells in the body. In addition to pancreatic cancer, gemcitabine is also used to treat cancers of the lung and breasts. When used to treat ovarian cancer, the medication is taken in conjunction with carboplatin, an anticancer chemotherapy drug.

Patients who are prescribed gemcitabine for pancreatic cancer are typically given the drug following surgery in an effort to remove cancer from the pancreas and slow down metastasis. According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, pancreatic cancer patients who took gemcitabine lived an average of two months longer than patients who opted for surgery alone. The medication has been a standard treatment for individuals diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer for over a decade. Some oncologists prescribe the medication even if the cancer is late stage and inoperable to prolong the life of the patient.

Patients with metastatic pancreatic cancer are often treated with gemcitabine as the primary treatment if it is determined by the oncologist that the patient has a Karnofsky score of 50 or higher. Karnofsky scores are a standard of measurement used by medical professionals to classify patients' abilities to perform ordinary tasks. These include speech, walking, and cognition.

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Gemcitabine can be administered either through an IV infusion or by injection. Patients are typically given the injection at an oncologist’s office or a cancer treatment center. When physicians prescribe gemcitabine for pancreatic cancer, patients are instructed to receive the injections or infusions once a week for several consecutive weeks. Treatment is often followed by an MRI or other diagnostic test to determine the drug's impact on disease progression.

Gemcitabine is effective for the treatment of pancreatic cancer but often results in decreased white blood cells, the cells that help the body fight infection and combat anemia. Although the medication reduces cancer cells, patients who use the drug can easily get sick from being around others who are ill, due to their compromised immune systems. To ensure that white blood cell counts do not get too low, oncologists and physicians check cell counts on a regular basis. As a precautionary measure, liver and kidney function are also routinely checked.

Patients who have taken gemcitabine for pancreatic cancer report side effects that include flu-like symptoms. Some patients also experience nausea, vomiting, lack of appetite, and skin rashes. Physicians often prescribe secondary medications that can effectively counter some of the side effects of the drug, stimulating appetite and reducing discomfort; these measures are important to ensuring that patients have good quality of life during treatment.

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