What is the role of pancreaticoduodenectomy (Whipple procedure) in the treatment of pancreatic cancer?

Updated: Oct 02, 2020
  • Author: Tomislav Dragovich, MD, PhD; Chief Editor: N Joseph Espat, MD, MS, FACS  more...
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Patients who will most likely benefit from this procedure have a tumor located in the head of the pancreas or the periampullary region. The Whipple procedure is not strictly the surgical approach for pancreatic head tumors. Pancreatic ductal tumors, cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer), and duodenal masses will all require this resection. The operation traditionally involves removal of the pancreatic head, duodenum, gallbladder, and the antrum of the stomach, with surgical drainage of the distal pancreatic duct and biliary system, usually accomplished through anastomosis to the jejunum. The primary reason for removing so much of the intraabdominal structures is that they all share a common blood supply.

Pancreaticoduodenectomy has been shown to have an overall mortality rate of 6.6%. [72] Many forms of morbidity are associated with the operation. One of these is delayed gastric emptying. This occurs in approximately 25% of patients. This condition may require nasogastric decompression and will lead to a longer hospital stay. [73] Other morbidities include pancreatic anastomotic leak. This can be treated with adequate drainage. Postoperative abscesses are not uncommon.

Although preoperative biliary drainage was introduced to improve the postoperative outcome in patients with obstructive jaundice caused by tumors of the pancreatic head, van der Gaag et al found that routine use of this maneuver increases the rate of complications. In a multicenter, randomized trial, 202 patients with obstructive jaundice and a bilirubin level of 40–250 mmol/L (2.3-4.6 mg/dL) were assigned to undergo either preoperative biliary drainage for 4-6 weeks, followed by surgery, or surgery alone within 1 week after diagnosis. The rate of serious complications was higher in the biliary drainage group than in the early surgery group (74% vs 39%, respectively). No significant difference was noted in mortality or length of hospital stay between the 2 groups. [74]

Similarly, Limongelli et al found that preoperative biliary drainage predisposes patients to a positive intraoperative biliary culture, which in turn is associated with an increased risk of postoperative infectious complications and wound infection. [75]

The standard Whipple operation may be altered in order to include a pylorus-sparing procedure. This modification was previously incorporated to increase nutritional strength in these patients, because the increased gastric emptying associated with antrectomy caused nutritional deficiencies. Although many believe that delayed gastric emptying is worsened by this modification, studies have proven both resections to be equivalent in that regard.

Another source of controversy is the extent of lymphadenectomy that is necessary in a Whipple operation. In an elegant study, Pawlik et al found the ratio of positive nodes to total nodes removed was an important prognostic factor. [76] This was even more significant than margin positivity. [77]

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