The pancreas is a small gland, located behind the stomach, in the upper left abdomen. It has two main functions:
- Digestion. The pancreas contains exocrine cells, which make up glands and ducts, that produce pancreatic enzymes. These break down food and aid digestion.
- Blood sugar regulation. The pancreas also contains endocrine cells. These produce and release the hormones insulin and glucagon into the blood stream. Insulin and glucagon regulate blood sugar.
The pancreas has a wide head, middle section (called the body or neck), and tail. Pancreatic cancer occurs when cells within it grow uncontrollably. This can occur in any of its three parts. Pancreatic cancer can occur in the endocrine or exocrine cells. These are different types of cancers, which have varying symptoms, and treatments:
- Exocrine tumors. Most cancers which occur within the pancreas are exocrine cancers. Around 95 percent of them are adenocarcinomas.
- Endocrine tumors. Around 5 percent of all pancreatic cancers are this type. They’re also known as neuroendocrine, or islet cell tumors.
Pancreatic cancer can affect how you feel and your ability to eat. You’ll want to choose foods that you can tolerate and are easily digestible. You’ll also want to make sure that your choices optimize health, support recovery, and reduce symptoms. That may be a tall order, but it’s achievable. Your doctor or dietitian can work out an individualized plan best suited to your current needs and future goals.
Since the pancreas is necessary for regulating blood sugar and the digestion of food, your diet will be affected, no matter where you are in treatment. Dietary concerns include:
Trouble with digestion
If your pancreas doesn’t produce enough pancreatic enzymes, digesting food — especially fat — will be harder to do. When fat isn’t digested fully, it can make it harder to absorb nutrition in your food. It can also result in:
Unintended weight loss
Tumor-induced weight loss (cancer cachexia) is a common symptom of pancreatic cancer. It occurs when cancerous tumors in the pancreas release cytokines into the blood, as part of the body’s natural immune response. Cytokines reduce appetite, and also make the body burn calories more quickly.
Unwanted weight loss can continue to be a concern during treatment. This may be caused by the cancer, or by the treatments you need to fight it. Symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and low appetite, may make it harder to eat. Your body may also be unable to absorb the entire calorie content of your food, causing weight loss.
Problems regulating insulin and blood sugar
A normally-functioning pancreas secretes insulin as your body produces glucose. Glucose levels rise in the blood when you eat certain foods, such as carbohydrates. Pancreatic cancer reduces the ability of the pancreas to make enough insulin to control blood sugar.
Foods to eat
You may need to take a trial-and-error approach while you’re figuring out which foods your system can digest easily. Nutrient-dense choices high in protein and antioxidants are best. Maintaining a healthy weight may be easier if you eat small amounts at a time, rather than large meals. Also make sure to drink lots of water.
Beneficial foods include:
Fruits and vegetables
The World Cancer Research Fund International recommends eating at least five servings of non-starchy vegetables and fruits daily. Cooked vegetables may be easier for you to tolerate than raw ones. Berries, citrus fruits, leafy greens, and cruciferous vegetables are high in antioxidants, fiber, and phytochemicals. Options include:
Protein-rich foods bolster the immune system and help repair cells and tissues. Easy-to-digest protein sources include:
Complex carbohydrates rich in fiber don’t spike blood sugar levels as quickly as simple carbs do. They also keep energy levels up. Good choices include:
Getting enough folate, a B vitamin found in this category of foods, is also important for reducing the risk of pancreatic cancer.
Green tea contains polyphenols, which may have anti-cancer properties.
Fat is necessary for overall health. It supplies energy and helps maintain core body temperature. Healthy fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, such as:
Pancreatic cancer reduces the ability of the pancreas to make enough insulin to control blood sugar. This may result in diabetes. Diabetes may also be a risk factor for getting pancreatic cancer.
If you have pancreatic cancer plus diabetes, you’ll want to choose foods which keep your blood sugar levels as low as possible. Look for options that are low in sugar and high in fiber, such as plant-based foods. Fruits, vegetables, and legumes are all good choices. You’ll want to stay away from processed foods, with lots of trans and saturated fat, and sugar.
Foods to avoid
Certain foods may be harder for you to digest, exacerbating your symptoms and making you feel worse. Any food that seems to worsen symptoms, such as diarrhea or vomiting, should be eliminated, at least temporarily. These foods can also increase your chances of pancreatic cancer recurring.
Foods to avoid include:
- Red meat and processed meat. These hard-to-digest foods have also been cited as possible causes of cancer.
- Greasy, fatty, or fried foods. High-fat foods can increase uncomfortable symptoms, such as diarrhea and gas.
- Alcohol. Heavy drinking may increase pancreatic cancer risk or worsen your symptoms if you have pancreatic cancer.
- Sugar and refined carbohydrates. If you’re experiencing glucose intolerance or dumping syndrome, talk to your doctor about your sugar intake. Many people with pancreatic cancer have difficulty digesting simple carbohydrates and sugary foods or drinks. These foods also represent empty, non-nutritious calories.
Enzymes and supplements
If you need surgery, a section of your pancreas will be removed. This means it will produce less enzymes, making digestion harder. Enzymes help your body break down proteins and fats. Your doctor may prescribe supplemental pancreatic enzymes for you to take, if you’re not making enough of your own. These are usually taken right before a meal, enabling your body to better digest the foods you’re about to eat.
If you’re having trouble tolerating food and continue to lose weight, nutritional supplements may be a great option. Talk to your doctor and dietitian about shakes, protein powders, and vitamins which might help you meet your daily nutritional guidelines.
Research indicates that vitamin D has anticarcinogenic properties and may be helpful for people with pancreatic cancer. The effects of vitamin D aren’t definitive, and current research is conflicting. The foods highest in vitamin D include fatty, cold-water fish, such as salmon, cod, herring, and sardines, though sunlight is often the best source. But it also comes in supplement form. Talk to your doctor or dietitian about supplementing with vitamin D.
No one, specific food has been linked to preventing pancreatic cancer. As reported in the Journal of Advanced Pharmaceutical Technology & Research, foods that are high in antioxidants, such as fruits and vegetables, may have a preventive effect against cancer. Foods that are high in fiber may also help prevent the growth, or spread, of cancerous tumors.
The foods you choose can help you reduce many of the most challenging symptoms associated with your diagnosis. Healthy food can also help you stay energized, focused, and better able to take cancer on and win.
Talk to your doctor and dietitian about what foods are best for you to eat. Together you can create an individualized plan, focused on your needs.