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Controlling symptoms of advanced pancreatic cancer

Find out about treatments to control the symptoms of advanced pancreatic cancer and what you can do to help yourself.

Advanced pancreatic cancer means that a cancer that began in the pancreas has spread to another part of the body or has come back after previous treatment. Advanced cancer can cause symptoms.

Tell your doctor or nurse about any symptoms that you have so they can help you.

Treatments such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy can sometimes help to shrink the cancer, reduce symptoms and help you feel better. Other treatments such as stents can treat specific symptoms such as a blockage in the stomach.

Symptoms

You might have one or more of these symptoms:

Tiredness is a common symptom of advanced cancer. It can feel a bit overwhelming and as though you don’t have any energy. 

Let your doctor or nurse know if you’re very tired as they might be able to prescribe medicine to help or other treatments. For example, a blood transfusion can give you more energy if you’re tired due to anaemia (low red blood cell levels).

Resting

It’s important to rest a few times throughout the day. Resting regularly can help you feel less tired and more able to cope. You don't have to sleep during these times. Just sitting or lying down will help. 

Exercise

Exercising can be hard when you feel very tired. But research shows that daily light to moderate exercise can give you more energy. Going for a gentle walk is very good. Gentle exercises in bed or standing up can help if you can’t move around easily. 

Your hospital physiotherapist might be able to help you plan an exercise programme that suits your needs.  

Sleeping

You might feel more tired if you have trouble sleeping at night. It can help to change a few things about when and where you sleep.

The cancer might block the entrance to the stomach or the entrance to the bowel. Then food can’t pass through. This causes pain, sickness and makes you feel very unwell. You need to go to the hospital if this happens. 

They might put a tube called a stent into your stomach to allow food to pass through. 

Surgery to bypass or remove part of your stomach can help if you’re well enough to cope with it.

You might not feel like eating and may lose weight. It is important to eat as much as you can.

Tips:

  • Eating several small meals and snacks throughout the day can be easier to manage.
  • Ask your doctor to recommend high calorie drinks to sip if you are worried about losing weight.
  • Eat whatever you feel like eating rather than what you think you should eat.
  • Eat plenty of calories when you can to make up for times when you don’t feel like eating.
  • Drink plenty of fluids even if you can't eat.
  • Don't fill your stomach with a large amount of liquid before eating.
  • Try to eat high calorie foods to keep your weight up.
Talk to your dietitian about having high calorie drinks to boost your calorie intake if you need them.

You may have pain in the area of your cancer. Let your doctor or nurse know. Painkillers can help.

You might have a swollen tummy (abdomen) if your cancer has spread to the liver. The swelling is due to a build up of fluid called ascites. It can make your clothes feel tighter. Your tummy might feel bloated. You might also find it difficult to sit comfortably or to move around.

Your doctor can drain off the fluid by putting a small, flexible tube into the abdomen. This helps you to feel more comfortable.

You might pass pale, offensive smelling stools (poo) that float. This is called steatorrhea (fatty poo).

Bowel problems such as diarrhoea or constipation can be caused by the cancer. They can also be caused by cancer treatments or medicines. For example, painkillers commonly cause constipation. 

Talk to your doctor or nurse if you have bowel problems. They can help by giving you medicine. And they can refer you to a dietitian for advice on what to eat or drink. 

Symptoms if the cancer has spread

You might have other symptoms, depending on where the cancer has spread.

Help with controlling symptoms

Your doctor or specialist nurse can help you to control symptoms. They can:

  • give you medicines
  • get equipment that you need
  • suggest other ways of controlling your symptoms
  • refer you to a symptom control team (a palliative care team)

Symptom control team

Members of the team are experts at controlling symptoms. They can help you to stay as well as possible for as long as possible. There are symptom control teams in most cancer units. They are also in hospices and many general hospitals. Most symptom control teams have home care services so they can visit you at home.

Information and help

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About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.