What symptoms are caused by problems with diet and digestion?

Pancreatic cancer can affect how well your body can digest food. It is common for problems with digestion to cause symptoms such as weight loss and changes to your poo.

It is common for people with pancreatic cancer to get symptoms caused by problems digesting food.

Symptoms include:

Some of these symptoms can be caused by other things. For example, chemotherapy can cause side effects including sickness, diarrhoea and appetite loss.

Some treatments or medicines can hide symptoms. Your medical team will help you manage any symptoms you have alongside the medicines. Do not stop taking any medicines without speaking to your doctor, nurse or dietitian first.

Talk to your doctor, nurse or dietitian about any symptoms you have. There are ways to manage your symptoms. This includes taking pancreatic enzymes.

Weight loss

Losing weight is a common symptom of pancreatic cancer. Diabetes can also cause weight loss.

Weight loss can affect how you deal with the symptoms of the cancer, and with treatments such as chemotherapy or surgery.  Weight loss can be upsetting and affect how you feel generally. Read about emotional support.

Your doctor, dietitian or nurse will work out what is causing the weight loss, and how this can be managed. You may need to take pancreatic enzymes to help you digest your food and maintain your weight.

Your medical team will also help you make changes to your diet so you can get more calories (energy) and protein. They may recommend enriched food, which has extra nutrients added to it. This can help you get more calories and protein, without needing to eat more. This is called a build-up or fortified diet.

Your dietitian may also recommend nutritional supplements, which have extra calories and protein in them.

When someone loses weight quickly, they often lose muscle and strength too. Having more protein in your diet and doing gentle physical activity can help rebuild muscle. This can help you to feel better and have more energy.

Read about who can help you manage weight loss and other symptoms

"I lost a lot of weight, but after advice from dietitians it has stabilised. I adjust the Creon dose and my food intake to keep it stable."

Clive

Jaundice

Jaundice makes your eyes and skin turn yellow, and you may feel itchy. It can also cause loss of appetite, taste changes, feeling and being sick, dark urine and pale poo.

Jaundice is caused by the cancer blocking the bile duct. The bile duct carries bile from the liver to the small intestine. Jaundice can be treated by putting a tube called a stent into the bile duct to open it up.

What is steatorrhoea?

Steatorrhoea is caused by fat in the poo. Your poo may be pale, oily, smell worse than normal, and difficult to flush down the toilet. It happens if your body isn’t making enough enzymes to digest the fat in your food properly. It also happens if the enzymes are blocked from getting to the bowel, where they are needed for digestion. It is not caused by eating too much fat. You should not reduce fat in your food. Talk to your doctor or dietitian if you have signs of steatorrhoea.

Diarrhoea (runny poo)

Pancreatic cancer can cause diarrhoea. Pancreatic enzymes can help manage this if it is caused by problems with your digestion. Treatments such as chemotherapy can also cause diarrhoea, and your medical team can give you medicines for this.

Diarrhoea can be a sign of an infection. If you are having chemotherapy and have diarrhoea more than four times a day, phone the 24 hour emergency number that your chemotherapy team should have given you.

If your diarrhoea doesn’t get better if you are taking enzymes, there could be another cause. Bile acid diarrhoea can happen if there is too much bile in the intestine. Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) can also cause diarrhoea. This is caused by too many bacteria in the intestine. Speak to your doctor, nurse or GP. You may need to see a gastroenterology team, who are experts in problems with the stomach and intestines. There are tests and medicines for bile acid diarrhoea and SIBO.

If the cancer blocks the duodenum

Pancreatic cancer can block the duodenum, which is the first part of the small intestine. This can cause symptoms such as feeling full quickly, feeling and being sick, and losing weight.

A tube called a stent can be put into the duodenum to hold it open so food can pass through. This should stop you being sick and you should start to feel like eating again. You may need to change your diet to make sure the stent doesn’t get blocked.

What can I do about symptoms?

Our tips for eating well and dealing with digestion problems may help you deal with some of these symptoms.

Do you have problems digesting your food?

If you have pancreatic cancer and have these symptoms, our leaflet explains how pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy can help, and how to get support.

Download the leaflet

Order a free copy
Digestion problems leaflet

Questions to ask your doctor, nurse or dietitian


  • Are my symptoms caused by digestion problems?
  • How can my symptoms be managed?
  • Will taking pancreatic enzymes help my symptoms?
  • Could anything else be causing any of my issues with digestion?
  • How can I keep my weight stable, or put weight on?
  • What sort of foods can I eat after having a stent put into my duodenum?
  • Who should I see for help with managing diabetes?

Updated March 2023

Review date March 2025