How Effective is the Whipple Operation & Is It Always Suitable?

Whipple procedure, or pancreaticoduodenectomy, is the surgical removal of the head of the pancreas, duodenum (first part of the small intestine), gallbladder, bile duct and parts of the stomach if necessary. Afterwards, the remaining organs are reconnected to regulate the body’s digestive functions.

The procedure is complex and poses numerous risks; however, it is the most effective treatment to address certain forms of pancreatic cancer and other conditions such as chronic pancreatitis.

Who Is Eligible for Whipple Procedure?

Though effective, Whipple operation is recommended for about 20% to 30% of patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. This is because the condition is known to be very aggressive, and spreads quickly without manifesting obvious symptoms. If the tumor is detected early and only affects the head of the pancreas, the Whipple procedure may be performed, and often in conjunction with chemotherapy. Otherwise, other treatment methods are advised.

Intensive testing and assessment with a highly skilled doctor can help determine a patient’s eligibility for the operation, as well as to perform the procedure before the cancer metastasizes.

What Are the Potential Risks and Complications?

Those who are fit to undergo Whipple procedure are strongly advised to go to a surgeon who specialises in pancreatic surgery, as it is a very complex procedure with a high mortality rate if done ineffectively.

As with all surgeries, the Whipple procedure carries risks, which include:

  • Diabetes – Once a part of the pancreas is removed, the body may lose some ability to produce insulin, which regulates blood sugar levels. This can lead to diabetes, a long-term condition manageable with insulin shots, medication, and diet and lifestyle modifications.
  • Pancreatic fistula – This occurs when the connections made between the pancreas and other organs break down or do not heal properly, resulting in various leakages that cause infections.
  • Malabsorption – Removing part or all of the pancreas results in reduced production of pancreatic enzymes, leading to difficulties in digesting and absorbing nutrients from food. This can also lead to changes in bowel habits, weight loss and gastrointestinal conditions.

Depending on the results of the surgery, these effects may be temporary or long-term, requiring medicine, follow-up surgeries and permanent diet and lifestyle adjustments to manage.

What Is the Success Rate of Whipple Procedure?

Research shows that the 5-year survival rate of all stages of pancreatic cancer only goes as high as 5%.

Whipple operation is one of the most effective methods to treat pancreatic cancer in its early stages. In 20% of patients diagnosed with the condition, the 5-year survival rate ranges from 20% to 25%. In cases where the cancer has not spread beyond the pancreas and to the lymph nodes, the 5-year survival rate goes up to 40%.

Additionally, when Whipple surgery is accompanied with chemotherapy and radiation, the patient’s survival rates can increase by another 10%.

Pancreatic cancer is an aggressive and life-threatening condition, but it can be treated when detected early. Dr Victor Lee of Digestive & Liver Surgery specializes in the management of pancreatic cancer and other biliary conditions through treatments like Whipple operation, laparoscopic surgeries and organ transplants. For more information, call 6737-8878.