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What are the side effects of pancreatic cancer surgery?

Surgery for pancreatic cancer can cause side effects. These will affect everyone differently, and you may not get all the side effects listed here. If you are worried about side effects, talk to your doctor or nurse. Knowing what to expect will help you deal with any side effects.  

Short term side effects

Pain

After the operation, you may have pain from the wound. This is normal and is usually controlled with an epidural (a drip in your spine) to begin with. Or you may have a PCA (patient controlled analgesia) where you press a button to give you pain relief when you need it. Read more about painkillers after surgery.

As your pain improves, you will change to tablets – usually in the first few days after surgery. Take them regularly, as advised by your doctor or nurse. It’s important to let your medical team know if your pain isn’t properly controlled.

Your pain will reduce over time, and you should be able to cut down the amount of painkillers you take. Talk to your GP about the best way to do this.

If you get sudden tummy pain after you leave hospital, or any pain gets worse, call your surgical team or nurse. If it’s outside office hours, go to your local accident and emergency (A&E) department.

Constipation

You may have no bowel movements or find it difficult to completely empty your bowels (constipation) for several days after surgery. Let your doctor or nurse know about this. Drinking plenty of fluids and moving around as much as possible may help.

Opioid drugs, like morphine, are often used to treat pain after surgery. But they can cause constipation. You should be given medicine called laxatives for this.

Feeling sick

Some medicines, such as medicines for pain, may make you feel sick. You will be given anti-sickness medicines for this.

You may also feel sick because it can take time for your digestive system to start working properly again. This can be treated with drugs and is usually only temporary. Eating smaller meals more often can also help. Read more about sickness and things that can help.

If you start being sick after you leave hospital tell your doctor or nurse as soon as possible.

Surgical leaks

After surgery there is the risk of a leak from where the pancreas, bile duct or stomach are joined to the bowel. A leak often heals on its own, though sometimes more treatment is needed. 

Your surgeon may put a thin tube called a drainage catheter into your tummy during surgery. If there is a leak, this will drain the fluids away. It is normal for there to be fluid in these drains after surgery, especially for the first couple of days.

Any possible leaks usually happen while you are still in hospital. But if this does happen after you have left hospital, you may have a very sharp pain either across your tummy or in the middle of your back. You may also have a high temperature. If you have any of these symptoms speak to your nurse or medical team immediately. It may mean that you need to go back into hospital for another procedure.

Longer term side effects

Diet and digestion

It will take time to get back to eating normally after surgery. The pancreas plays an important role in digesting food. Removing all or part of the pancreas will affect how well you can digest food and may cause symptoms such as weight loss and bowel problems.

Problems with digesting food can be managed with pancreatic enzyme supplements. These are tablets that replace the enzymes your pancreas would normally produce.They help to break down food and can help to deal with symptoms linked to diet. Pancreatic enzyme supplements can also make a big difference to how you feel. Your dietitian, doctor or nurse should check whether you need pancreatic enzyme supplements before and after your surgery.

“I was surprised at both what and how little I could eat after my surgery – a spoon of cereal rather than a large bowl. I hadn’t expected it to be so extreme, but my appetite and ability to eat and digest a greater variety of food gradually returned.”

Diabetes

Diabetes is a condition where the amount of sugar in your blood (your blood sugar level) is too high. Your pancreas makes a hormone called insulin, which helps to control your blood sugar level. Having part or all of your pancreas removed can cause diabetes. Symptoms of diabetes include feeling very thirsty, passing more urine than usual, losing weight quickly, headaches and tiredness.

If you get diabetes you may need to take medicine to manage it. You should see a doctor, specialist pancreatic dietitian or a diabetes nurse for help with managing diabetes. It’s important to get the right advice about diabetes. There are different types of diabetes, and information on the internet may not be right for you because of your pancreatic cancer. Read more about diabetes and pancreatic cancer.

Discomfort and pain

A few weeks after your operation you may still feel some discomfort and pain. This is normal, but if your pain is bad it could mean that you have an infection, so contact your surgical team straight away. If the pain is really bad or you have a high temperature or feel generally unwell, go to your local accident and emergency (A&E) department.

You may still have pain and discomfort a few months after your operation. This is part of the healing process. You may have feelings such as tingling, butterfly feelings and occasional sharp pains in your tummy. This is normal and may be a sign that your muscles and nerves are starting to repair. Or it may be a sign that you are doing too much lifting and bending and that your body just needs more time to heal. Sometimes the scar from the wound can be numb and stays that way.

If you have any new pain or symptoms, and taking regular painkillers doesn’t help, speak to your nurse, medical team or GP.

Tiredness and fatigue

An operation to remove pancreatic cancer is major surgery. It can take several months, or sometimes longer, to fully recover. Feeling tired and weak is normal.

To help manage fatigue, try to balance resting with being active, but don’t overdo it. Aim to gradually get back to daily activities, such as walking and household tasks, doing more as time goes on.

If you have any questions or worries about any side effects, speak to your doctor or nurse. You can also speak to our specialist nurses on our free Support Line.

Find out about the different types of surgery for pancreatic cancer

What happens after your operation?

Recovering from surgery

Find out about check-ups after surgery

Peer support for people having surgery

Published April 2019

Review date March 2021

Information Standard