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Pancreatic Cancer Side Effects from Treatment

Side effects of pancreatic cancer treatment

As with any medical treatment, you may experience side effects from your cancer treatment. This is perfectly normal and can be a sign that the treatment is working, although it may feel unpleasant. Side effects vary from person to person and depend on the type of treatment, the part of the body treated, and the length and dose of treatment. Most side effects are temporary and go away after treatment ends. Below you can find information on some common side effects of treatments and how you can manage them to improve your daily well-being.

You may experience side effects other than those discussed here.

If you experience side effects, let your healthcare team know when you next see them. If the symptoms feel extreme or are worrying you, get in contact with your oncology team sooner.

Why cancer and cancer treatments cause side effects

Pancreatic cancer and cancer treatments change how the pancreas functions. You may notice some changes or side effects, but everyone is different. 

Pancreatic cancer may impact:

  • Nutritional requirements and what you need to eat

  • How much you eat

  • Appetite

  • Your ability to digest and absorb foods

  • Blood sugar control

  • Ability to maintain the weight and muscle mass

  • Your energy levels and general wellbeing.

Click on each treatment to learn more about the side effects of that treatment


Some side effects of surgery are due to the anesthesia and should fade shortly after the surgery. These include:

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Dizziness

  • Agitation

Other side effects are due to the surgical procedure itself which should subside shortly after surgery. These include:

  • Fatigue

  • Pain at the site of the surgery. You may be given morphine-based medication to help control this pain or nerve blockers that convey pain from the pancreas.  

Some additional side effects may present due to the disruption to your digestive system as a result of the surgery and colud take weeks or months to recover from. These include:

  • Diarrhoea and malabsorption

  • Weight loss

  • Loss of appetite

  • Feeling full quickly


Chemotherapy treatment kills cancer cells, but in the process, damages normal healthy cells which causes side effects. These side effects vary from person to person and depend on the type of treatment, the part of the body treated, and the length and dose of treatment. Below are some common side effects of this.

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Loss of appetite

  • Feeling full quickly

  • Diarrhoea and constipation

  • Fatigue

  • Weight loss

  • Sore mouth or throat

  • Taste changes

  • Hair loss

  • Dry or itchy skin

  • Foggy brain

Some chemotherapy side effects can be life-threatening therefore it is important to contact your oncology team or go to your nearest emergency department immediately if you experience any of the following and let them know that you are undergoing chemotherapy treatment. These include:

  • Fever or chills

  • Pain in your chest or difficulty breathing

  • Diarrhoea

  • Vomiting that is not eased with anti-sickness medication

  • Bleeding from the gums or nose that doesn’t stop

  • Pain or blood present when passing urine

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy is used to kill cancer cells, but it can also kill some healthy cells near to the cancer site too. Although radiation therapy itself does not hurt, you may experience some symptoms afterwards due to the affect the radiation has on the healthy cells. These symptoms may include:

  • Mamae Tīkākā (similar to a sunburn) at the radiation site

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Loss of appetite

  • Feeling full quickly

  • Diarrhoea and constipation

  • Fatigue

  • Weight loss

Managing symptoms and side effects

Click on the symptoms below to find information on how to manage symptoms and side effects.


A common side effect of treatment is feeling constant tiredness (fatigue). Treatment or the cancer itself can reduce the number of red blood cells in your body, resulting in anemia, which can make you feel very tired.

Tips to manage fatigue:

  • Use your energy wisely:

    • Plan ahead for when you feel too tired to cook

    • Shop online for groceries

    • Bulk cook meals you can store in the freezer

    • Cook when you have more energy

    • Ask and accept offers of help with shopping and cooking from whānau and friends

    • Use home delivery services such as Meals on Wheels or other companies that bring pre-prepared food to you. You can ask for help to access these via your social worker

    • Keep snacks handy in your bag or car.

  • Activity can help with fatigue:

    • Regular, gentle exercise can help improve fatigue and your appetite

    • Activity can mean many things – walking, stretching, even vacuuming!

    • Set small goals. Set a timer for five minutes and see what you can manage in this time

    • Eat with others.

Loss of appetite

It can be discouraging to lose your appetite. You may lose your appetite because of the effects of cancer itself, the treatment, or other side effects, such as feeling sick, not enjoying the smell of food, or feeling upset. To help you can:

  • Eat small amounts often, e.g., every 2–3 hours. Keeping to a regular eating pattern rather than waiting until you are hungry will mean your body gets the nourishment it needs to

  • Use a smaller plate – a big plate of food may put you off

  • Eat what you feel like when you feel like it. Have cereal for dinner or a main meal at lunch

  • Include a variety of foods in your diet

  • Sip fluids throughout the day

  • Replace water, tea and coffee with drinks or soups that add energy (kilojoules/calories), such as milk, milkshake, smoothies, replacement drinks or soup

  • Relax dietary restrictions – maintaining your weight or regaining weight you have lost is more important than avoiding full-fat and other high-energy foods

  • Gentle physical activity can stimulate appetite – take a short walk around the block

  • Eat with others

  • Keep snacks handy e.g., in your bag or car so you can eat on the go

  • Talk to your dietitian about liquid meal replacements that might be easier to digest.

Taste or smell changes

Some treatments such as chemotherapy can change the way food and/or drink taste or smell. It may taste bland or metallic.

Tips on managing changes in taste include:

  • Add extra flavour to food if it tastes bland – like fresh herbs, lemon, lime, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, honey, chilli, or pepper

  • Experiment with different food, as your tastes may change

  • If meat tastes bad during treatment, replace it with other protein sources like cheese, eggs, nuts, dairy foods, baked beans, lentils, or chickpeas

  • Add small amounts of sugar to food if it tastes bitter or salty

  • Use a straw when drinking

  • Change from using metal cutlery to plastic or bamboo cutlery

Tips on managing changes in smell include:

  • Eat cold food or food at room temperature (hot food smells more)

  • Reheat pre-prepared meals in the microwave so the cooking smell doesn’t put you off

  • Stay out of the kitchen, if possible, when food is being prepared

  • Ask family or friends to cook

  • Use the exhaust fan, open the kitchen window, or cook outside to help reduce cooking smells

Nausea and vomiting

Feeling sick and vomiting are often side effects of cancer, its treatment, or some medicines. They often occur together, but not always.


Nausea is stomach discomfort and the sensation of wanting to vomit. Nausea can be a precursor to vomiting the contents of the stomach and may be caused by treatment, stress, food odours, gas in the gastrointestinal tract, motion sickness or even the thought of having treatment.

Tips on how to cope with nausea:

  • Have a light snack before treatment and wait a few hours before eating again

  • Eat small meals 5–6 times during the day. Going without food for long periods can make nausea worse

  • Snack on dry or bland foods, e.g., crackers, toast, dry cereals, bread sticks or pretzels

  • Choose cold foods or foods at room temperature instead of hot, fried, greasy, or spicy foods

  • Eat and drink slowly and chew your food well

  • Try foods with ginger, e.g., ginger biscuits, or ginger beer

  • Avoid foods that are overly sweet, fatty, fried, spicy, or oily, or that have strong smells

  • Brush your teeth regularly to help reduce unpleasant tastes that may make you feel nauseated

  • Do not eat your favourite food when feeling nauseated to avoid developing a permanent dislike

  • Suck on hard lollies – flavoured with ginger, peppermint, or lemon

  • Try ginger food and drink items, such as candied ginger, ginger beer, ginger ale, or ginger tea. Talk to your dietitian doctor or pharmacist about ginger supplements

  • Take anti-nausea medicines as prescribed. Let the doctor know if the medicines don’t seem to be working.


Vomiting is the forcible emptying (“throwing up”) of stomach contents through the mouth. Vomiting can follow nausea and may be caused by treatment, stress, food odours, gas in the gastrointestinal tract, motion sickness or even the thought of having treatment.

Vomiting is more serious than nausea. Vomiting can cause dehydration and increase the risk of malnutrition. See a doctor if you are vomiting for more than one day, especially if you cannot keep water down as you may become dehydrated.

Tips on how to cope with vomiting:

  • Take small sips of water or clear liquids, such as ginger ale, soda water or sports drinks like Gatorade or Hydrolyte. Dilute sweet drinks. If you feel like a fizzy drink, open it, and let it sit for 10 minutes or so, and drink it when it’s a bit flat

  • Sucking on crushed ice cubes or an ice block can be soothing

  • Once you can keep clear liquids down try some different drinks, such as consommé and clear broths, weak tea, herbal tea, fruit drinks, beef, and chicken stocks

  • Have small, frequent meals and snacks throughout the day

  • Introduce bland, starchy foods, such as plain biscuits, bread or toast with honey or jam, peanut butter, rice, yoghurt, or fruit. Attempt small, frequent servings at first

  • Consume a little bit more each time until you are eating a well-balanced diet.

Chewing and swallowing

After treatment chewing and swallowing may be difficult and painful. Surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy can cause temporary problems. People with dentures who have lost weight may also find their teeth become loose, which can make eating difficult.

Signs that you are having problems with chewing and swallowing include taking longer to chew and swallow, coughing or choking while eating or drinking, or food sticking in your mouth or throat like a ball.

Tips on chewing and swallowing:

  • Change how you prepare your food by chopping food up into smaller pieces or pureeing

  • Let your doctor know that you are having issues and get a referral to see a speech pathologist and dietitian

  • A speech pathologist can monitor your ability to swallow and suggest modifications to the texture of your food once your ability to swallow and chew begins to improve. A dietitian can ensure you are meeting your nutritional needs.

Mouth changes

Some chemotherapy drugs and some pain medicines can make your mouth dry, cause mouth ulcers, or change the amount of saliva in your mouth. A dry mouth can increase the risk of tooth decay and infections such as oral thrush, which will make eating harder.

Ulcers may also be present in your digestive tract, causing discomfort in the stomach or bowel and diarrhoea.

Tips to lessen discomfort with mouth sores:

  • Suck on ice cubes

  • Eat soft foods – stews, soups, scrambled eggs, and smoothies

  • Cold foods and fluids may be more comfortable than hot ones

  • Avoid ‘coarse’ foods that can irritate your mouth, such as crackers, toast, nuts, and seeds

  • Avoid spicy or very hot foods

  • Use a straw and direct liquids away from the areas where mouth sores are most painful

  • Talk to your doctor about medication or mouth washes to help manage the pain and allow you to eat more comfortably.

Tips to relieve a dry mouth:

  • Suck on ice cubes

  • Keep your mouth clean with regular mouthwashes to prevent infections

  • Gargle with 1⁄2 tsp salt or 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda in a glass of water

  • Choose an alcohol-free mouthwash to avoid irritating your mouth further

  • Use a soft toothbrush when cleaning your teeth

  • Ask your dentist or health care team about suitable mouth rinses or oral lubricants

  • Limit alcohol and coffee as these are dehydrating fluids and avoid smoking

  • Avoid ‘coarse’ foods that can irritate your mouth, such as crackers, toast, nuts, and seeds

  • Avoid spicy or very hot foods

  • Soften food by dipping it into milk, soup, tea, or coffee

  • Moisten with sauce, gravy, cream, custard

  • Sip fluids with meals and throughout the day

  • Chew sugar-free gum to stimulate the flow of saliva.

Changes in bowels- constipation and diarrhoea

Living with cancer and its treatments can result in changes to your bowel habits. This could be differences in the appearance, consistency, and/or the smell of your stools.


This is when your bowel motions are infrequent and difficult to pass. It can be caused by different factors including regularly taking opioid medicines; having a diet low in fibre; not getting enough exercise; not having enough fluids to drink (dehydration); or having a low overall food intake.

Tips on how to manage constipation:

  • Soften stools by drinking 8–10 glasses of fluid a day, e.g., water, herbal tea, milk-based drinks, soup, prune juice

  • Eat foods high in fibre, e.g., wholegrain breads, cereals, or pasta; raw and unpeeled fruits and vegetables; nuts and seeds; legumes and pulses

  • If you are increasing the amount of fibre in your diet, increase fluids to prevent the extra fibre making constipation worse

  • Ask your doctor about using a laxative, stool softener and/or fibre supplement

  • Exercise – check with your doctor, exercise physiologist or physiotherapist about the amount and type of exercise that is right for you.


This means your bowel motions are watery, urgent, and frequent. You may also get abdominal cramping, wind, and pain. Frequent loose stools can occur because you are not digesting food or absorbing nutrients properly. Cancer treatment, medicines, infections, reactions to certain foods and anxiety can all cause diarrhoea.

Diarrhoea can result in dehydration, so it’s important to stay hydrated by drinking extra fluids. Every time you have a loose bowel movement you should drink an extra cup of non-caffeinated fluid. If you have diarrhoea for several days, see your doctor so he/she can determine the cause and help to manage your diarrhoea. Your doctor may decide to prescribe you anti-diarrhoea or over-the-counter medication.

Tips on how to manage diarrhoea:

  • Drink plenty of fluids to avoid becoming dehydrated. Water and diluted cordials are better than high-sugar drinks, alcohol, or caffeinated fluids – remember signs of dehydration are smaller amounts of dark urine

  • Choose low-fibre foods, e.g., bananas, mashed potato, rice, pasta, white bread, oats, steamed chicken without the skin, white fish

  • Avoid foods that increase bowel activity, e.g., spicy, fatty, or oily foods, caffeine, alcohol, or artificial sweeteners

  • Try soy milk or lactose-free milk if you develop a temporary intolerance to milk (lactose)

  • Don’t eat too many raw fruit and vegetable skins and wholegrain cereals as they may make diarrhoea worse

  • Avoid foods and drinks that are high in sugar, such as cordial, soft drinks and lollies

  • Avoid foods sweetened with artificial sweeteners such as sorbitol, mannitol, and xylitol. These are often marketed as ‘sugar-free’

  • It may also help to eat small, frequent meals throughout the day, rather than three large meals.

Heartburn (Indigestion)

Some cancers and treatments can cause heartburn, which is a burning sensation in the upper chest, oesophagus and/or throat. It is caused by the contents of the stomach coming back up into the oesophagus (reflux).

Heartburn may make you feel too uncomfortable to eat much, which could lead to weight loss. If the tips below do not relieve heartburn, let your doctor know as medication may help to prevent or manage these side effects.

Tips to manage heartburn:

  • Avoid large meals; try to eat 3 small meals and 3 small snacks throughout the day

  • Eat slowly and take the time to enjoy your meal

  • Avoid wearing tight clothing while eating, especially belts

  • Sip fluids between meals, rather than drinking large amounts at mealtimes

  • Limit or avoid foods that may make heartburn worse, e.g., chocolate, highly seasoned spicy foods, high-fat foods (e.g., fried food, pastries, cream, butter, and oils), tomato and tomato products, citrus fruits, coffee (including decaf), strong tea, soft drinks, and alcohol

  • Straight after eating, sit upright for at least 30 minutes and avoid lying down or activities that involve bending over (e.g., gardening)

Peripheral neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy is caused by damage to the peripheral nerves. These are the nerves in the body outside the brain or spinal cord. Peripheral neuropathy may be caused by cancer, cancer treatments or other health problems. It most commonly affects the hands and feet. Peripheral neuropathy caused by cancer treatment will get better over time with proper treatment and care.

The most common symptoms of peripheral neuropathy can include:

  • Tingling, burning, numbness or pain in the hands or feet

  • Difficulty doing up buttons and picking up small items

  • Loss of feeling especially in the hands and feet

  • Problems with balance or walking, and clumsiness

  • Be safe. If you notice changes in your walking, stance, fine and gross motor skills, or balance speak to your doctor as soon as possible and ask for a referral to an occupational therapist, exercise physiologist or physiotherapist.

Tips to manage peripheral neuropathy:

  • Use a night light so that you don’t trip or bang into anything if you need to go to the toilet at night

  • Keep clutter and rugs off the floors

  • Have clear paths to the toilet and bedroom

  • Use handrails where possible

  • Use nonslip mats in the shower and bathroom

  • Be careful on slippery and wet floors

  • Do not walk around bare footed as you may not notice if you stand on something that could damage your feet

  • Wear shoes and slippers that fit well

  • Use a walking stick if you need to

  • Wear gloves when washing up, cleaning and gardening

  • Test water temperature with your elbow

  • Take care when cutting food and opening cans or jars

  • Keep your skin moisturised to prevent cracking

  • Check your hands and feet daily for signs of injury, rubbing, redness or infection

  • Ask for help if you need it, e.g., to do up buttons and shoes

  • Find clothes and shoes that are easy to put on and take off

  • Avoid driving if symptoms are severe.

Alerting your healthcare team of side effects

Your health care team wants to hear about your side effects. Your questions and concerns are important. Do not be afraid to share them. Ask your health care team who you should contact if you feel that your side effects need assessing right away.

Treatment changes

Occasionally, if you have severe side effects, your doctor may discuss delaying or changing your treatment to prevent further discomfort.

Start a symptom diary

Keeping track of your symptoms can help you and your cancer care team to manage them better.

Know who to contact if you have a problem

Ask your doctor or nurse:

  • when you should call for help or advice

  • who you should contact

  • how to contact them (including at night or weekends)

Keep this information where you can easily find it.

Our partners at the Pancare Foundation have created a webinar to help patients manage these side effects and help you navigate each day and experience greater quality of life. Pancare's experts share their knowledge surrounding common side effects such as nausea, peripheral neuropathy, fatigue, mouth sores, abdominal discomfort and more. Practical ways to manage these side effects are explored along with information regarding the support and care available for you and your family. 

*NB - The PanSupport service mentioned is not available to patients in New Zealand

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.