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Diet and pancreatic cancer

Men and women discussing pancreatic cancer

This page is on diet and cancer of the pancreas. You can find the following information

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Diet and pancreatic cancer

Having cancer of the pancreas will affect your eating and drinking habits, whatever your stage or treatment. The pancreas is not only close to the stomach and bowel, it produces insulin and enzymes which help to digest food.

After surgery, you may have digestive problems, such as diarrhoea. If you've had all or part of your pancreas removed, you may need to take insulin or tablets to regulate your blood sugar. You may also need to take enzyme supplements when you eat to help your digestion.

Before you leave hospital you should see a dietician, who will give you a diet plan to suit you. If you are on insulin or tablets to regulate your blood sugar, your doctor will also ask you to check the sugar levels in your urine or blood.

You may find it easier to have lots of small meals, rather than sticking to 3 meals a day. If you are finding it hard to eat, there are plenty of diet supplements available on prescription. If you are having problems with diarrhoea after pancreatic surgery, avoid very high fibre foods (such as cereal and dried fruit). Tell your doctor or nurse. You may need some medicines to control your symptoms. And if you are taking enzyme supplements, your dietician may need to alter the dose.
 

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How pancreatic cancer can affect your diet

Having cancer of the pancreas will affect your eating and drinking habits, whatever your stage of cancer or treatment. The pancreas is not only close to the stomach and bowel, it produces insulin and enzymes which help to digest food.

If you've had all or part of your pancreas removed, you may need to take insulin or tablets to regulate your blood sugar. You may also need to take enzyme supplements when you eat to help your digestion. It can take time to get the balance of these drugs right. Be patient, and make a note of any digestive symptoms you have which might help your doctor to get things right more quickly.

 

Blood sugar

If you are on insulin or tablets to regulate your blood sugar, your doctor will ask you to check your urine for sugar. Too much sugar in the urine indicates that the sugar balance of your body is not yet right. If you are on insulin, you will probably also have to test your blood sugar levels. You will have to prick your finger and squeeze a drop of blood onto a test strip. This will show how much sugar is in your blood. You will then know how much insulin to take. It takes time to get used to doing these tests. But you will be shown how to do it before you leave hospital. You may also have a nurse to visit you at home to help you and answer your questions.

 

Enzyme supplements

Digestive enzymes help your body to break down and absorb fats and proteins from your diet. If you do not make enough of these enzymes, you may have diarrhoea or your stools may float, look pale and smell offensive. This is due to the undigested fat in the stool. You may also find it difficult to put on weight as you are unable to absorb the nutrients from your food. If your pancreas is not working properly due to the cancer or you've had all or part of your pancreas removed, you may need to take enzyme supplements to reduce these effects.

There are several different types of enzyme supplement. Creon is the one most commonly used. The amount you need to take will vary depending on how well your remaining pancreas is working, and your diet. For example you may need to take more enzymes if you are about to eat a large or fatty meal. 

You should swallow the enzyme capsules whole, immediately before your meal. If you find it difficult to swallow capsules, you can open them and mix the granules in soft acidic foods that are at room temperature and easy to swallow. For example apple sauce or mashed banana. You must not chew or crush the granules. Have a drink of water afterwards to make sure none of the granules stay in your mouth as they can irritate the lining and cause mouth ulcers.

Your dietician will give you a diet plan to suit you and advise you on taking the supplements. It can take a bit of time to get the right dose of enzymes for you.

 

Snacks and small meals

You may find it easier to have lots of small meals through the day, rather than sticking to the traditional 3 meals a day. It is a good idea to have plenty of nutritious snacks to hand that you can have whenever you feel like eating. If you can manage it, it is best to choose full fat versions of yoghurts and puddings, so that you get the most calories. You could try

  • Yoghurts or fromage frais
  • Other soft puddings such as trifle or chocolate mousse
  • Dried fruit
  • Stewed or fresh fruit (bananas are high in calories)
  • Nuts
  • Cheese
  • Instant soups (make up with milk to boost calories)
  • Cereal
  • Milky drinks
  • Flapjacks

Some of these ideas may not suit your digestion but they may be worth a try. If in doubt, check with your dietician. Try to think of quick ways of having the things you like to eat. If possible, get someone to prepare your favourite foods in advance and freeze them in small portions. A microwave makes defrosting and heating easier and quicker.

 

Managing diarrhoea

If you are having problems with diarrhoea after pancreatic surgery, it is most probably related to difficulty digesting fat. Even so, avoid very high fibre foods (such as cereal and dried fruit) for the time being as these may make things worse. Tell your doctor, nurse or dietician. You may need some medicines to control your symptoms. If you are taking enzyme supplements, your dietician may need to alter the dose. They can also suggest some changes to your diet that may help.

 

Nutritional supplements

If you are finding it hard to eat, there are plenty of nutritional supplements available on prescription. Some are powders you sprinkle on your food and some are drinks that are complete meals in themselves. Sipping a supplement between meals throughout the day can really boost your calorie intake. Again, ask your doctor or dietician.

We have some tips for putting on weight in our diet and cancer section.

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Updated: 5 June 2014