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How to Manage Pancreatic Cancer Treatment’s Side Effects

March 05, 2020

A pancreatic cancer survivor is any person who is actively facing pancreatic cancer or has faced it at some point. It could be someone who has completed treatment or a patient actively receiving chemotherapy for a limited or long-term management of their disease.

Patients treated with chemotherapy experience a variety of side effects. Some of these, like nausea, might be limited in time, but others such as neuropathy or fatigue can be long-lasting.

Peripheral neuropathy manifests as numbness, tingling or burning in extremities. These symptoms are caused by a chemotherapy-induced nerve damage and, unfortunately, there isn’t an effective way to prevent it. It is important for patients undergoing chemotherapy to alert their provider if they begin to experience any of these symptoms, as modifying the treatment regimen can prevent further damage.

Certain medications can help decrease the intensity of the neuropathy. Other treatments, such as acupuncture and electrical nerve stimulation, can also be beneficial. If neuropathy becomes limiting in daily life tasks, occupational therapy can help.

Lifestyle adjustments can help with managing cancer-related fatigue, a common side effect of cancer and its treatments. Healthy practices such as regular, moderate-intensity exercise, good sleeping habits and a balanced diet can help combat fatigue. It is important not to confuse fatigue with depression, which causes, besides physical tiredness, an inability to feel pleasure or enjoy life. Patients suffering with depression should communicate their feelings to their provider and ask for appropriate help.

A healthy and balanced diet is essential for recovery and quality of life. But despite best efforts, sometimes patients with pancreatic cancer experience continued weight loss. This is often due to pancreatic insufficiency, which produces weight loss, bloating, abdominal pain and pale/frequent stools. This complication can be treated effectively with pancreatic enzyme replacement.

Survivors face through their journey a mixture of emotions. Those whose cancer is controlled but are still on treatment or those who have completed chemotherapy feel relieved but also often live in fear of their disease progressing or recurring.

“Scanxiety” is a term shared among cancer survivors to describe the anxiety that they feel prior to getting an imaging study or other examination. These feelings can become overwhelming, so it is important to acknowledge and address them. It is OK to worry about the future, but survivors should not fixate on it and let it take over. Survivors can try multiple strategies to face their “scanxiety,” such as sharing their feelings, getting involved with support groups and engaging in distractions.

Pancreatic cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States, with only 10 percent of patients alive five years after diagnosis. But it is important to acknowledge that the rate of five-year survivors was 6 percent just a few years ago. We hope the rate of pancreatic cancer survivors will continue to increase in the coming years thanks to new therapies and improvements in early detection strategies.

Dr. Rawad Elias is a GI and geriatric oncologist at Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute. For more information about the Cancer Institute, click here.