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Pancreatic Cancer Diet and Nutrition

Why is diet and nutrition important?

You may be feeling that some things are out of your control, however there are a number of actions that you can take to make sure your body is in the best condition to cope with, and heal from, the symptoms and side effects of the cancer and cancer treatments.

Below you will find detail about why diet and nutrition can make a big difference to the healing process and how you feel.

Pancreatic Cancer Diet and Nutrition webinar

This webinar explored how a pancreatic cancer diagnosis impacts on diet and nutrition, discuss what to consider during treatment and following surgery, the importance of Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy (PERT), and the role of diet and nutrition support during palliative care.

Why does pancreatic cancer affect nutrition?

Pancreatic cancer, and cancer treatments place extra demands on your body. They can also cause you to lose your appetite and energy, putting you at an increased risk of malnutrition. It is important to ensure that your body is receiving the right nutrition before, during and after treatment to be able to cope with these extra demands.

Your food choices when you have cancer and are undergoing treatment may be very different from what you are used to eating.

The main goal is to try to keep your weight constant, maintain muscle strength, maintain a healthy weight, and have more energy, all of which help your body to heal properly, improve your quality of life and give you the energy to cope with all the new challenges treatment may bring.

Pancreatic cancer and the treatments for pancreatic cancer may impact:

  • Your nutritional requirements and what you need to eat

  • How much you eat

  • Your appetite

  • Your ability to digest food

  • Your ability to maintain your weight and muscle mass

  • Your energy levels and general wellbeing.

  Good nutrition can help to:

  • Manage the side effects of treatment

  • Speed up recovery after treatment

  • Heal wounds and rebuild damaged tissues after surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, or other treatment

  • Improve the body’s immune system and ability to fight infections

Overall, try to make food choices that provide you with enough:

  • Calories (to maintain your weight)

  • Protein (to help rebuild tissues that cancer treatment may harm)

  • Nutrients such as vitamins and minerals

  • Fluids (essential for your body’s functioning)

Exercise can also help with appetite and digestion issues related to treatment.

Click on the sections below to learn more about diet and nutrition at during different stages of the cancer journey

Nutritional tips during treatment

  • You may need more energy (kilojoules/calories)

  • Eat small, frequent meals or snacks, rather than three large meals a day

  • Ask for a referral to a dietitian – discuss eating issues, weight issues, muscle loss

  • Do some light physical activity, such as walking, to improve appetite and mood, reduce fatigue, help digestion, and prevent constipation

  • Check with your doctor or dietitian before taking vitamin or mineral supplements or making other changes to your diet

  • Relax dietary restrictions, e.g., choose full cream rather than low-fat milk

  • Consider using nutritional supplements if you cannot eat enough – discuss options with your doctor, palliative care specialist or dietitian.

Nutritional tips following surgery

Surgeries used to treat cancer may result in a variety of side effects, including weight loss and diarrhoea. The side effects usually only last for a short period of time, but you may have to make some changes to your diet to ensure that you are getting enough nutrition and maintaining your weight.

Your body needs good nutrition after surgery, and it is an important part of your recovery process. If you are struggling to eat or drink, the hospital may prescribe nutrition supplements, or recommend tube feeding, to help you to maintain weight and provide you with the nutrients you need for speedy recovery. 

Tips on maintaining weight after surgery:

  • Monitor your weight – weigh yourself once or twice a week to monitor for any weight loss

  • If you are losing weight, tell your doctor and get a referral to see a dietitian

  • Eat small, frequent meals after surgery so your digestive system only has to deal with a small amount of food at a time

Nutritional tips to prevent Dumping Syndrome

Whipple procedure includes removal of the lower part of the stomach. This may include the valve, or sphincter, that helps control the flow of food from the stomach to the small intestine. Removal of this valve can result in a condition called Dumping syndrome.

Dumping syndrome can occur when food moves from the stomach into the small bowel too quickly.

Symptoms of dumping syndrome (1-3 hours after eating):

  • Nausea

  • Cramps and diarrhoea approximately 10-30 minutes after eating or sweating

  • Dizziness.

Tips to prevent Dumping Syndrome include:

  • Avoid large meals

  • Avoid sugary drinks and sweets

  • Choose meals high in protein to slow the digestion of carbohydrates

  • Keep drinks separate to meals.

Malabsorption and pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy

Changes to the pancreas, from either the cancer or the treatment, can mean that the body does not produce enough, or any, pancreatic enzymes. This can lead to poor digestion and absorption of food and is known as pancreatic exocrine insufficiency (PEI).

Symptoms of malabsorption:

  • Floating, pale, foul-smelling stools

  • More frequent or loose bowel movements

  • Bloating or pain

  • Excess flatulence (farting)

  • Stools that are oily in appearance

  • Stools that are difficult to flush and stick to the toilet bowl

  • Not gaining weight or losing weight, even if you feel you are eating enough

  • Fatigue and weakness.

Your doctor or dietician should be consulted if you are experiencing any of these symptoms. They may recommend taking Pancreatic Enzyme Replacemet Therapy (PERT) which ensure that nutrients break down and can be absorbed by the body.

The ASPERT Study group have produced a very useful patient leaflet on the use of PERT

We recognise that dietary changes have a huge impact on everyone with cancer. It can take a while to get used to changes to your diet and lifestyle but finding ways to manage your diet and symptoms can help you feel more in control. It can also be helpful to speak to your dietitian, doctor or nurse.

Useful Websites & Patient Support

Information on these pages was collated with grateful assistance from the PanCare Foundation.

DISCLAIMER: Information provided by the Gut Cancer Foundation should be discussed with your healthcare professional and is not a substitute for their advice, diagnosis, treatment, or other healthcare services. In some cases, information has been gathered from Australian sources and should be discussed with New Zealand health care professionals.