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Managing the symptoms and side effects

Pancreatic cancer, and treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, can affect your ability to eat, digest and absorb essential nutrients.

Common nutrition-related problems include poor appetite, feeling full quickly, nausea and vomiting, changes in taste, altered bowel patterns, and poor digestion and absorption of food. These changes can cause you to lose too much weight.

During and after treatment, it’s important to make sure you are eating and drinking enough to maintain your weight and avoid malnutrition or dehydration. Different foods can affect people differently, so you will need to experiment to work out which foods cause problems for you.

Changes to the way you eat may make you feel anxious, particularly when you know eating well is important. Some people find it difficult to cope emotionally with the changes to how and what they can eat. Finding ways to enjoy your meals can help you feel more in control and improve your quality of life. It may help to talk about how you feel with your family and friends.

If you have ongoing problems with food and eating, talk to a dietitian. Dietitians are experts in nutrition who can give you specialist advice on how to cope with nutrition-related problems and eating difficulties throughout different phases of the disease. A doctor or dietitian may suggest nutritional supplements to help you maintain your strength.

The pancreas produces digestive enzymes to help break down food. When you have pancreatic cancer, or have had pancreatic surgery, your body may not be able to make enough of these digestive enzymes. This affects the body’s ability to digest food, particularly fat and protein, and to absorb vital nutrients. This is often referred to as pancreatic exocrine insufficiency (PEI). Signs of PEI include abdominal pain; bloating and excessive wind; diarrhoea or oily stools (poo) that are pale in colour, frothy, loose and difficult to flush; and weight loss.

If you develop pancreatic exocrine insufficiency (PEI), you will need to take pancreatic enzymes to help you digest and absorb fats and proteins. Talk to a dietitian experienced in managing PEI.

Vomiting can be prevented or relieved with anti-nausea medicines. Once vomiting stops, gradually return to your normal diet.

Some people will develop diabetes before pancreatic cancer is diagnosed or soon after surgery. Management usually requires both dietary changes and medicines.