What are the side effects of treatment for cancer of the pancreas?

The methods used to treat pancreatic cancer are very powerful. It is hard to limit the effects of treatment so that only cancer cells are destroyed. Healthy tissue may also be damaged. That is why treatment often causes unpleasant side effects. Side effects depend on the type of treatment used and on the part of the body being treated.

Surgery for cancer of the pancreas is a major operation. While in the hospital, the patient will need special medications and may be fed only liquids. During recovery from surgery, the patient’s diet and weight will be checked carefully.

During radiation therapy, the patient may become very tired as the treatment continues. Resting as much as possible is important. Skin reactions (redness or dryness) in the treated area are also common. Good skin care is important at this time, but the patient should not use any lotions or creams on the skin without checking with the doctor. Radiation therapy to the upper abdomen can cause nausea and vomiting. Usually, dietary changes or medications can ease these problems.

The side effects of chemotherapy depend on the drugs that are given. In addition, each person reacts differently. Chemotherapy affects rapidly growing cells, such as blood-forming cells, those that line the digestive tract, and those in the skin and hair. As a result, patients can have side effects such as a lowered resistance to infection, less energy, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, or mouth sores. Patients may also lose their hair.

Weight loss can be a serious problem for patients being treated for cancer of the pancreas. Researchers are learning that well- nourished patients usually feel better and may be better able to withstand the side effects of their treatment. Therefore, nutrition is an important part of the treatment plan, and doctors may have a number of suggestions to help their patients get enough calories and protein. In many cases, patients feel better if they take food and beverages in very small amounts. Many patients find that eating several small meals and snacks throughout the day is easier than having three large meals.

In addition, treatment for cancer of the pancreas may interfere with production of insulin and pancreatic juices. The patient must take medicines to replace these; otherwise the level of blood sugar may be wrong and digestion may be affected. Even so, taking these medicines can often upset digestion. Careful planning and checkups are important to help the patient avoid weight loss and the weakness and lack of energy caused by poor nutrition.

Patients and family members are often afraid that cancer will cause pain. Cancer patients do not always have pain, but if it does occur, there are many ways to relieve or reduce it. It is important for the patient to let the doctor know about pain, because uncontrolled pain can cause loss of sleep and poor appetite. These problems can make it difficult for the patient to respond to treatment.

The side effects that patients have during cancer therapy vary for each person. They may even be different from one treatment to the next. Attempts are made to plan treatment to keep problems to a minimum. Fortunately, most side effects are temporary. Doctors, nurses, and dietitians can explain the side effects of cancer treatment and can suggest ways to deal with them. Helpful information about cancer treatment and coping with side effects is given in the National Cancer Institute publications Radiation Therapy and You, Chemotherapy and You, and Eating Hints.


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