Swelling (ascites and oedema)

People with pancreatic cancer who are approaching the end of their life may get a build up fluid in their tummy (ascites) or in their legs and feet (oedema).

What is ascites?

Pancreatic cancer can sometimes cause fluid to build up in the tummy area (abdomen). This is called ascites, and it can cause pain and discomfort.

You may have swelling in your tummy and you may feel full quickly when you eat. You might find it harder to move around and may get breathless. If you have any of these symptoms, tell your doctor or nurse.

You may also find it difficult to get comfortable when lying down, or on your side. You may find it more comfortable to use pillows to prop yourself up when you sleep.

The fluid may be drained off to make you more comfortable. To do this, you will have a local anaesthetic in your tummy so that it’s numb and you don’t feel anything. A needle is used to put a thin tube into your tummy to drain the fluid. The tube connects to a drainage bag which will collect the fluid.

The fluid can build up again and you may need to have it drained more than once. You may have a permanent drain put in so that the fluid can be regularly drained off by the district nurse at home. You can ask your doctor or nurse about this.

Sometimes ascites may also be treated with medicine called a diuretic. This may help reduce the fluid, although it doesn’t always make a big difference.

Macmillan Cancer Support has more information about treatments for ascites.

What is oedema?

Fluid may also build up in other parts of your body, such as your arms, legs and feet. This can cause swelling, and is called oedema. Some people also get oedema in their genitals. Oedema can be uncomfortable and painful and can make it harder for you to move around.

Tell your doctor or nurse if you have any swelling. They may recommend pressure stockings to help control the swelling, and suggest some exercises you can do to help the fluid drain away. Putting your feet up when you are sitting down can help – try to have your feet higher than your hips if possible. It is also important to look after your skin by moisturising the swollen areas – ask your nurse what moisturiser to use. Sometimes you may be offered medicine called a diuretic to treat the oedema – although this may not make a big difference.

Marie Curie has more information about treatments for ascites and oedema.

Get support with ascites and oedema

Speak to your doctor or nurse if you have any swelling.

You can speak to our specialist nurses on our free Support Line with questions about ascites and oedema.

Speak to our nurses

Read our booklet about end of life care

To read more about swelling (ascites and oedema) at the end of life, 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