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, even when you are lying down. You may find it difficult to get comfortable when lying down, and find it uncomfortable to lie on your side. If you have any of these symptoms, tell your doctor or nurse.

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. A small cut is made, and a thin tube is inserted to drain the fluid. The fluid can build up again and you may need to have it drained more than once. The first time it is drained, you will need to go to hospital, but after that, your local hospice may be able to do it. You may also be able to 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 medication 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 your legs and feet, causing swelling. This is called oedema. People sometimes 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, for example on a foot stool, can help. 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 medication called a diuretic to treat the oedema – although this may not make a big difference.

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

Published March 2018

Review date March 2020