Side effects of surgery

Surgery for pancreatic cancer can cause side effects. These will affect everyone differently, and you may not get all of them. If you are worried, talk to your doctor or nurse.

What are the short term side effects?

Pain

It is normal to have some pain and discomfort for a few weeks after surgery. For the first few days, you may have painkillers through:

  • a drip in your spine (epidural)
  • small tubes on each side of your wound
  • a drip in your arm, which you control by pressing a button – this is called patient controlled analgesia (PCA).

As your pain gets better, you will have painkillers as tablets instead. Take these regularly, as advised by your doctor or nurse. The pain should continue to improve over time. Tell your doctor or nurse if it doesn’t.

If your pain suddenly gets worse after you leave hospital, and painkillers do not help, call your surgical team straight away. If it’s outside office hours, or if you also have a high temperature, shivering or feel generally unwell, go to A&E. Make sure you tell them about your surgery.

Feeling sick (nausea)

Some medicines, including painkillers, 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 to work properly again. This is usually only temporary, and your doctor or nurse can help manage it. Eating little and often can help. If you start being sick, tell your doctor or nurse as soon as possible.

Pancreatic leak

The place where the surgeon joins the pancreas (or, less commonly, the bile duct or stomach) to the small intestine can sometimes leak. You may have had a thin tube put in during your surgery, to drain fluid from your wound. If so, this drain can be used to check that the leak is improving. Or you may have a new drain put in.

These leaks often heal without treatment. The drain can then be removed. But if you have a large leak that doesn’t improve, you may develop an infection. You may need antibiotics and, less commonly, another operation.

Mouth problems

Speak to your doctor if you have any mouth problems. They can check for oral thrush and other infections. Oral thrush causes white spots on your tongue, a sore mouth and unpleasant taste, and can affect your appetite. It is common after surgery, but is usually easy to treat with medicine.

What are the longer term side effects

Diet and digestion

It will take time to start eating normally again after surgery. You may lose your appetite, or feel full quickly. Eating little and often may help.

The pancreas plays an important role in breaking down (digesting) food. Removing all or part of the pancreas can affect how well you digest food . This may cause symptoms such as weight loss, diarrhoea, tummy discomfort or bloating.

Problems with digestion can be managed with pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT). These are capsules that you take with food. They replace the enzymes your pancreas would normally make. They help to break down food and can make a big difference to how you feel.

The dietitian, doctor or nurse should check whether you need PERT before and after surgery. If you haven’t seen a dietitian and are having problems with digestion, ask your medical team or GP to refer you.

“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 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.

While in hospital, your blood sugar level is likely to be checked to see if you get diabetes. If you get possible signs of diabetes after returning home, speak to your GP. Signs to look out for include feeling thirsty and needing to pee more often.

If you get diabetes, you may need to take medicine to manage it. You should see a doctor, specialist dietitian or diabetes nurse for help with this. It’s important to get the right advice.

There are different types of diabetes. Other information on the internet may not be right for you because of your pancreatic cancer.

Discomfort and pain

You may still have pain and discomfort a few months after your operation. Your scar might still feel numb. You may feel tingling, fluttering feelings and occasional sharp pains in your tummy. This is all normal. It may be a sign that your muscles and nerves are healing. But it could also be a sign that you are lifting and bending too much, and your body needs more time to heal.

If you have any new pain that painkillers don’t help, speak to your medical team or GP. You should contact your surgical team straight away, or go to A&E, if your pain is really bad or you have a high temperature.

Tiredness and fatigue

Surgery to remove pancreatic cancer is a major operation. It can take several months, or sometimes longer, to fully recover. It is normal to feel tired and weak. But you may have more extreme tiredness, called fatigue, where you feel completely drained or exhausted.

There are ways to manage fatigue. Try to balance resting with being active. Aim to gradually get back to daily activities, such as walking and light household tasks. Slowly build up how much you do, but don’t overdo it.

Questions about side effects

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

Speak to our nurses
A specialist nurse taking a phone call.

Questions to ask your doctor or nurse


  • Should I do anything to prepare for surgery?
  • How will any pain be managed?
  • How will surgery affect my eating and digestion?
  • Should I take pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT)?
  • Who can I see for help with managing side effects?
  • What should I do if my side effects don’t get any better?

Updated January 2024

Review date January 2026