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Overview of diet and pancreatic cancer

This section explains how pancreatic cancer and the treatments for it can cause problems with diet, eating and nutrition, the symptoms you might get, and the support available.

How does pancreatic cancer affect diet and nutrition? 

The pancreas plays an important role in digesting food, as it produces enzymes that help to break down the food. Nutrients from the food can then be absorbed into the blood and used by the body.

Different pancreatic enzymes help to break down foods containing fat, protein and carbohydrate.

How does pancreatic cancer affect digestion?

Pancreatic cancer can reduce the number of enzymes that your pancreas makes. It can also block the enzymes from getting to the bowel, where they are needed for digestion. For example, the cancer can block the pancreatic duct, which carries the enzymes from the pancreas to the small intestines.

This means that food is not properly digested, and the nutrients in the food aren’t absorbed. This can be treated with pancreatic enzyme supplements.

The pancreas also produces hormones, including insulin, which control sugar levels in the blood. Pancreatic cancer can reduce the amount of hormones the pancreas produces. This can cause diabetes.

Surgery for pancreatic cancer, where all or part of the pancreas is removed, will also affect the amount of enzymes and hormones produced by the pancreas.

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What symptoms are related to diet and digeston?

It’s common for people with pancreatic cancer to get symptoms caused by problems with eating and digesting food. These can include:

  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss
  • feeling and being sick (nausea and vomiting)
  • loose runny poo (diarrhoea)
  • yellow, oily, floating poo (steatorrhoea)
  • tummy discomfort or pain
  • bloating
  • wind
  • feeling full up quickly
  • needing to empty your bowels urgently, especially after eating  
  • some people also develop diabetes.

These symptoms can be a sign that your body can’t digest food or absorb nutrients properly. However, they can also be caused by other things. If you have any of these symptoms, speak to your doctor or nurse. There are ways to manage them.

Some diet symptoms can also be caused by jaundice.

What is jaundice?

Jaundice is a symptom of pancreatic cancer. It develops when there is a build-up of something called bilirubin in the blood. Bilirubin is found in bile, which is produced by the liver. You might get jaundice if your cancer has blocked the bile duct, which carries the bile from the liver to the small intestines.

Jaundice can cause loss of appetite, taste changes, feeling and being sick, and steatorrhoea. These usually improve once the jaundice is treated.

What is steatorrhoea?

Steatorrhoea is caused by fat in poo (stools). Poo is usually pale coloured, and can be oily, smell horrible, and is difficult to flush down the toilet. It happens if your body can’t digest fat in your food properly – because the pancreas isn’t producing enough enzymes.

What support is there for problems with diet and eating?

A dietitian is a professional who provides advice about diet and nutrition. Specialist pancreatic or oncology dietitians are experts in diet and cancer, and can help manage your dietary symptoms and prevent weight loss.

A dietitian will assess your symptoms around diet and eating. They will help you make changes to your diet to help you eat as well as possible. They will also assess whether you need pancreatic enzyme supplements to help with digestion.

Finding ways to manage your dietary symptoms can help you feel better generally. If you haven’t seen a dietitian, and you are having problems with your diet and eating, or are losing weight, ask your medical team or GP to refer you to a specialist dietitian.

More diet and pancreatic cancer information

Updated November 2017

To be reviewed November 2019

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