Symptoms towards the end of life

We explain the symptoms people with pancreatic cancer might get in the last few months or weeks of life, and how these are managed.

If you are approaching the end of life, the cancer may cause symptoms such as pain, fatigue (extreme tiredness), sickness, weight loss and bowel problems. Not everyone will get all of the symptoms we’ve included in this section.

We also have information about managing the symptoms people with pancreatic cancer may get at an earlier stage of pancreatic cancer.

Key facts about symptoms towards the end of life

  • There are ways to manage most symptoms. Speak to your doctor or nurse about any symptoms you have.
  • Tell your doctor or nurse straight away about any pain. The sooner you get treatment, the better the chance of getting the pain under control.
  • Pancreatic cancer can cause problems with digestion. Taking capsules called pancreatic enzymes when you eat can help.
  • As you approach the end of life, you may feel less like eating, and lose weight. This is normal.
  • If you need help with symptoms at night or over the weekend, you should have an out of hours number to use. Ask your GP or nurse how best to contact them out of hours.
  • Your symptoms may change in the last months or weeks of life, and people may have different symptoms in the last few days.

Managing symptoms

Some symptoms can develop quite quickly. Speak to your doctor or nurse about any symptoms, including any new symptoms or any that get worse. Your doctor or nurse will work out the best way to manage your symptoms. This will depend on your own situation and what is best for you.

In the last few weeks of your life, your healthcare team may give you medicines to keep at home for symptoms you may get in the future. These are given by your nurse as an injection. They are sometimes called pre-emptive, anticipatory or just in case medicines. They are kept in a box or bag marked ‘just in case’, with instructions on how to give them. If you need these medicines urgently, your nurse can give them to you. This can be helpful if you need treatment at night or at the weekend.

Getting help at night or at the weekend

If you need help with symptoms at night or over the weekend, your district nurse or palliative care team may have an out of hours number. The GP’s answer phone will also give you the number of the out of hours GP. Your local hospice may have a 24 hour advice line, usually run by nurses, who will be able to help or tell you where to get help.

Ask your healthcare team how best to contact them out of hours.

Find out about the symptoms people with pancreatic cancer get in the last few months

Anxiety and depression

Anxiety and depression can be common in people with pancreatic cancer. Read about the support available towards the end of life

Anxiety and depression towards the end of life

Speak to our nurses

If you have any questions about symptoms you can speak to our specialist nurses on our free Support Line.

Speak to our nurses
Specialist nurse, Lisa, talks on the phone to offer support.

Questions to ask your doctor or nurse

  • How will my symptoms be managed?
  • What support is there for dealing with symptoms?
  • What can be done if my symptoms don’t improve, or get worse?
  • What should we do if my symptoms get worse at night or at the weekend?

Complementary therapies to help deal with symptoms

Some people find that complementary therapies can help with symptoms. These therapies can help you to relax and feel better, although they can’t treat the cancer.

Always tell your healthcare team before starting a complementary therapy, as some may affect your treatment. And tell your complementary therapist about any treatments you are having.

  • Massage may help you relax, reduce pain and help you feel better generally. Check with your doctor or nurse if it is safe for you to have a massage. You shouldn’t have massage on any areas where you have any broken skin, or if the massage is making your pain any worse. If you have problems with bleeding you should avoid deep tissue massage.
  • Reiki is a gentler type of massage where the therapist’s hands gently brush over the body, or a few inches above the body.
  • Reflexology or relaxation therapies may help relieve symptoms such as pain.
  • Other therapies that you may find helpful include art therapy, music therapy and pet therapy.

Some hospices, hospitals and charities offer complementary therapies. Your doctor or nurse can tell you what is available in your area. The Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council have a list of registered therapists.

Read our booklet about end of life care

To read more about end of life care, download our booklet, Pancreatic cancer and end of life care: information for people in the last months, weeks and days of life.

You can also order a physical copy.

Order our booklet
An image of the front cover of Pancreatic Cancer UK's booklet, End of Life Care

Published April 2021

Review date April 2024