Pancreatic Cancer: Side Effects


Side effects of pancreatic cancer and/or its treatment include:

Appetite Loss

Appetite changes are common with cancer and cancer treatment, including chemotherapy. Individuals with a poor appetite or appetite loss may eat less than usual, not feel hungry at all or feel full after eating only a small amount. Ongoing appetite loss can lead to weight loss, malnutrition and loss of muscle mass and strength. The combination of weight loss and loss of muscle mass, also called wasting, is referred to as cachexia.


Diarrhea is frequent, loose or watery bowel movements. It is a common side effect of certain chemotherapeutic drugs or radiation therapy to the pelvis, such as in women with uterine, cervical or ovarian cancers. It can also be caused by certain tumors, such as pancreatic cancer.

Fatigue (Tiredness)

Fatigue is extreme exhaustion or tiredness and is the most common problem patients with cancer experience. More than half of patients experience fatigue during chemotherapy or radiation therapy, and up to 70 percent of patients with advanced cancer experience fatigue. Patients who feel fatigue often say that even a small effort, such as walking across a room, can seem like too much. Fatigue can seriously affect family and other daily activities and can make patients avoid or skip cancer treatments.

Fluid in the Abdomen (Ascites)

Ascites is the buildup of fluid in the abdomen, in the area around the organs known as the peritoneal cavity. Ten percent of all ascites is caused by cancer and is called malignant ascites. Most cancer-related ascites appears in patients with cancers of the ovary, endometrium (lining of the uterus), breast, colon, gastrointestinal (GI) system or pancreas. These cancers can cause fluid to build up in the body. People with ascites may experience weight gain, abdominal swelling, a sense of fullness or bloating, a sense of heaviness, indigestion, nausea and/or vomiting, changes to the navel, hemorrhoids (a condition that causes painful swelling near the anus) or ankle swelling. In some situations, a procedure known as paracentesis is performed by the doctor to temporarily drain some of the excess fluid to relieve the swelling.

Hair Loss (Alopecia)

A potential side effect of radiation therapy and chemotherapy is hair loss. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy cause hair loss by damaging the hair follicles responsible for hair growth. Hair loss may occur throughout the body, including the head, face, arms, legs, underarms and pubic area. The hair may fall out entirely, gradually, or in sections. However, the hair loss is usually temporary, and the hair often grows back.

Mouth Sores (Mucositis)

Mucositis is an inflammation of the inside of the mouth and throat, leading to painful ulcers and mouth sores. It occurs in up to 40% of patients receiving chemotherapy treatments. Mucositis can be caused by a chemotherapeutic drug directly, the reduced immunity brought on by chemotherapy or radiation treatment to the head and neck area.

Nausea and Vomiting

Vomiting, also called emesis or throwing up, is the act of expelling the contents of the stomach through the mouth. It is a natural way for the body to rid itself of harmful substances. Nausea is the urge to vomit. Nausea and vomiting are common in patients receiving chemotherapy for cancer and in some patients receiving radiation therapy. Many patients with cancer say they fear nausea and vomiting more than any other side effects of treatment. When it is minor and treated quickly, nausea and vomiting can be quite uncomfortable but cause no serious problems. Persistent vomiting can cause dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, weight loss, depression and avoidance of chemotherapy.


Depending on the stage of the disease, 30 to 75 percent of all patients experience pain from cancer. About 85 to 95 percent of cancer pain can be treated successfully. Pain can make other aspects of cancer seem worse, such as fatigue, weakness, sleep disturbance and confusion. Pain can come from the tumor itself or may be a result of cancer treatment. Pain from a tumor can be a result of the tumor growing and spreading to the bones or other organs and putting pressure on and damaging nerves. In pancreatic cancer, a common source of pain is tumor involvement with the celiac plexus, a nerve center located in the center of the abdomen behind the pancreas. Sometimes, the doctor can perform a celiac plexus nerve block to lessen the pain either by inserting a needle through the skin or by using an endoscope with ultrasound to identify the nerve center.

Skin Problems

The skin is an organ system that contains many nerves. Because of this, skin problems can be very painful. Many patients find skin problems especially difficult to cope with because the skin is on the outside of the body and visible to others. Because the skin protects the inside of the body from infection, skin problems can often lead to other serious problems. As with other side effects, prevention or early treatment is best. Skin problems can have many different causes, including chemotherapeutic drugs leaking out of the intravenous (IV) tube, which can cause pain or burning; peeling or burned skin caused by radiation therapy; pressure ulcers (bed sores) caused by constant pressure on one area of the body; and pruritis (itching) in patients with cancer, most often caused by leukemia, lymphoma, myeloma, other cancers or side effects of treatment.