Side effects of surgery

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

Short term side effects

Pain

It is normal to have some pain and discomfort for a few weeks after surgery. Straight after the operation, you may have painkillers through an epidural (a drip in your spine). Or you may have patient controlled analgesia (PCA). This is where you have painkillers through a drip in your arm. You press a button to get the pain relief. As your pain gets better, the epidural or PCA will be removed.

After a few days you will have painkillers as tablets. Take these regularly, as advised by your doctor or nurse, and tell them if you have any pain. Your pain will reduce over time.

If you get sudden tummy pain after you leave hospital, or any pain gets worse, call your surgical team. If it’s outside office hours, go to A&E and let them know about your surgery.

Feeling sick

Some medicines, such as 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 working properly again. Your doctor or nurse can help you manage this, and it is usually only temporary. Eating smaller meals more often can help. If you start being sick, tell your doctor or nurse as soon as possible.

Longer term side effects

Diet and digestion

It will take time to get back to eating normally after surgery. You may have lost your appetite, or feel full quickly. Eating smaller meals may help.

The pancreas plays an important role in breaking down (digesting) food. Removing all or part of the pancreas may affect how well you can digest food and 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 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 pancreatic enzymes before and after surgery. If you haven’t seen a dietitian and you 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.

If you get diabetes you may need to take medicine to manage it. You should see a doctor, specialist dietitian or a diabetes nurse for help with this. It’s important to get the right advice. There are different types of diabetes. Information on the internet may not be right for you because of your pancreatic cancer.

Discomfort and pain

It is normal to feel some discomfort and pain for a few weeks after surgery. If the pain is bad, it could mean that you have an infection, so contact your surgical team straight away. If the pain is really bad or you have a high temperature or feel generally unwell, go to A&E and tell them about your operation.

You may still have pain and discomfort a few months after your operation. You may feel tingling, butterfly feelings and occasional sharp pains in your tummy. This is normal and may be a sign that your muscles and nerves are starting to repair. It can also be a sign that you are doing too much lifting and bending, and your body just needs more time to heal. Sometimes the scar from the wound can be numb.

If you have any new pain and painkillers don’t help, speak to your medical team or GP.

Tiredness and fatigue

An operation to remove pancreatic cancer is major surgery. It can take several months, or sometimes longer, to fully recover. Feeling tired and weak is normal. Fatigue is extreme tiredness. You may feel 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 or worries about any 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.

Read more about managing symptoms

We have lots of free, helpful information about ways to manage symptoms, including pain, feeling and being sick, diabetes, and fatigue. You can find these and more in the ‘Managing symptoms’ section of our publications shop.

Go to our Managing symptoms information

Questions to ask your doctor or nurse


Should I do anything to prepare for surgery?

Who can I see for help with managing side effects?

How will any pain be managed?

How will surgery affect my eating and digestion?

Should I take pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT)?

What should I do if my side effects don’t get any better?

Published November 2021

Review date November 2023