Pancreatic Cancer (cont.)

Side effects of pancreatic cancer treatment

Because cancer treatment may damage healthy cells and tissues, unwanted side effects are common. These side effects depend on many factors, including the type and extent of the treatment. Side effects may not be the same for each person, and they may even change from one treatment session to the next. The health care team will explain possible side effects and how they will help the patient manage them.

The NCI provides helpful booklets about cancer treatments and coping with side effects, such as Radiation Therapy and You, Chemotherapy and You, and Eating Hints for Cancer Patients. See the sections called "National Cancer Institute Information Resources" for another source of information about side effects.

Surgery

Surgery for pancreatic cancer is a major operation. Patients need to stay in the hospital for several days afterward. Patients may feel weak or tired. Most need to rest at home for about a month. The length of time it takes to regain strength varies.

The side effects of surgery depend on the extent of the operation, the person's general health, and other factors. Most patients have pain for the first few days after surgery. Pain can be controlled with medicine, and patients should discuss pain relief with the doctor or nurse. The section on "Pain Control" has more information.

Removal of part or all of the pancreas may make it hard for a patient to digest foods. The health care team can suggest a diet plan and medicines to help relieve diarrhea, pain, cramping, or feelings of fullness. During the recovery from surgery, the doctor will carefully monitor the patient's diet and weight. At first, a patient may have only liquids and may receive extra nourishment intravenously or by feeding tube into the intestine. Solid foods are added to the diet gradually.

Patients may not have enough pancreatic enzymes or hormones after surgery. Those who do not have enough insulin may develop diabetes. The doctor can give the patient insulin, other hormones, and enzymes. The section "Nutrition for Cancer Patients" has more information.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy may cause patients to become very tired as treatment continues. Resting is important, but doctors usually advise patients to try to stay as active as they can. In addition, when patients receive radiation therapy, the skin in the treated area may sometimes become red, dry, and tender.

Radiation therapy to the abdomen may cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or other problems with digestion. The health care team can offer medicine or suggest diet changes to control these problems. For most patients, the side effects of radiation therapy go away when treatment is over.

Chemotherapy

The side effects of chemotherapy depend mainly on the drugs and the doses the patient receives as well as how the drugs are given. In addition, as with other types of treatment, side effects vary from patient to patient.

Systemic chemotherapy affects rapidly dividing cells throughout the body, including blood cells. Blood cells fight infection, help the blood to clot, and carry oxygen to all parts of the body. When anticancer drugs damage healthy blood cells, patients are more likely to get infections, may bruise or bleed easily, and may have less energy. Cells in hair roots and cells that line the digestive tract also divide rapidly. As a result, patients may lose their hair and may have other side effects such as poor appetite, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, or mouth sores. Usually, these side effects go away gradually during the recovery periods between treatments or after treatment is over. The health care team can suggest ways to relieve side effects.

Pain control

Pain is a common problem for people with pancreatic cancer. The tumor can cause pain by pressing against nerves and other organs.

The patient's doctor or a specialist in pain control can relieve or reduce pain in several ways:

  • Pain medicine -- Medicines often can relieve pain. (These medicines may make people drowsy and constipated, but resting and taking laxatives can help.)
  • Radiation -- High-energy rays can help relieve pain by shrinking the tumor.
  • Nerve block -- The doctor may inject alcohol into the area around certain nerves in the abdomen to block the feeling of pain.
  • Surgery -- The surgeon may cut certain nerves to block pain.

The doctor may suggest other ways to relieve or reduce pain. For example, massage, acupuncture, or acupressure may be used along with other approaches to help relieve pain. Also, the patient may learn relaxation techniques such as listening to slow music or breathing slowly and comfortably.

More information about pain control can be found in the NCI publications called Pain Control: A Guide for People with Cancer and Their Families, Get Relief from Cancer Pain, and Understanding Cancer Pain. The Cancer Information Service can send these booklets.

Nutrition

People with pancreatic cancer may not feel like eating, especially if they are uncomfortable or tired. Also, the side effects of treatment such as poor appetite, nausea, or vomiting can make eating difficult. Foods may taste different. Nevertheless, patients should try to get enough calories and protein to control weight loss, maintain strength, and promote healing. Also, eating well often helps people with cancer feel better and have more energy.

Careful planning and checkups are important. Cancer of the pancreas and its treatment may make it hard for patients to digest food and maintain the proper blood sugar level. The doctor will check the patient for weight loss, weakness, and lack of energy. Patients may need to take medicines to replace the enzymes and hormones made by the pancreas. The doctor will watch the patient closely and adjust the doses of these medicines.

The doctor, dietitian, or other health care provider can advise patients about ways to maintain a healthy diet. Patients and their families may want to read the National Cancer Institute booklet Eating Hints for Cancer Patients, which contains many useful suggestions and recipes.