It’s critical for patients to discuss any symptoms and side effects they have with their healthcare team and to ask about supportive (palliative) care. Supportive care focuses on comfort, quality of life and a patient’s total well-being during and after cancer-fighting treatment.
Seeing healthcare professionals who focus on symptom management and supportive care improves outcomes and is critical for your quality of life. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network strongly recommends that symptom management and supportive care should be provided early in your diagnosis as well as during and after treatment.
Here is a list of common physical concerns among pancreatic cancer patients that supportive care can help address.
Pancreatic cancer and its treatment can cause fatigue, an extreme lack of energy. More than half of pancreatic cancer patients experience some sort of cancer-related fatigue, which can vary from person to person. This can be addressed through supportive care strategies including exercise and good nutrition.
Pancreatic cancer can cause pain in the belly or mid-back. This can happen for a variety of reasons, including when the tumor blocks the digestive tract or pushes against nerves or organs. Treatments, like chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery, can also cause pain.
If patients are experiencing pain, let the healthcare team know immediately. Treating pain early, before it becomes worse, makes it easier to control. Through supportive care, patients can learn about ways to manage pain such as prescription medications and non-drug approaches.
Jaundice can affect some people with pancreatic cancer. Jaundice is caused by a buildup of bilirubin (a component of bile) in the body. It can cause yellowing of the skin and eyes, dark urine, light or clay-colored stools and itching. If you are experiencing jaundice, talk to your doctor about supportive care techniques such as placing a stent, or bypass surgery.
Maintaining good nutrition can help patients keep a healthy weight and better tolerate treatment. But sometimes surgery, medications or the cancer itself can change the way food tastes, cause poor appetite or impact the patient’s ability to break down nutrients.
If you are experiencing digestive issues, it is important to talk to your doctor or registered dietitian about supportive care. They can discuss your individual nutritional needs, help plan meals, and determine if pancreatic enzymes may be helpful for you. Many side effects can be managed or prevented through proper nutrition.
Nausea, with or without vomiting, is a potential treatment side effect, or may be due to the cancer itself. It can happen right after treatment or several days later. Some believe nausea is an inevitable part of cancer treatment, but it doesn’t have to be. Supportive care approaches such as dietary changes and anti-nausea medication can help decrease or prevent nausea and vomiting.
Ascites is the buildup of extra fluid in the abdomen. Ascites can develop if the cancer affects the liver, lymphatic system or abdominal lining. This condition causes the belly to swell and stretch out. Ascites can be managed through supportive care techniques such as paracentesis and diuretics (water pills).
Neuropathy is a condition that can cause numbness, tingling or burning in the hands or feet, numbness around the mouth, loss of sensation to touch and constipation. Certain chemotherapy medicines can damage a patient’s peripheral nerves, which causes the neuropathy.
Supportive care tips for managing neuropathy range from wearing comfortable clothing to relaxation techniques to prescription medications.
Each patient’s pancreatic cancer experience is unique, and supportive care can help in many ways. It’s important for patients to talk to their healthcare team about all symptoms and side effects they experience and how supportive care can help them feel their best throughout their treatment journeys.