I Have Pancreatic Cancer. What Should I Eat?

How do I make the best food choices throughout cancer treatment?

When you are faced with a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, nutrition can be an important part of your journey. Eating a well-balanced diet before, during, and after cancer treatment can help you feel better, maintain your strength, and speed your recovery. 

  • Maintain a healthy weight. Treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery for pancreatic cancer can often contribute to unintentional weight loss. It’s important to avoid excess weight loss during treatment as poor nutrition can cause decrease the body’s ability to fight infection.
  • Eat small, frequent meals throughout the day. Eating frequent small meals will ensure your body is getting enough calories, protein, and nutrients to tolerate treatment.  Smaller meals may also help to reduce treatment-related side effects such as nausea.  Try eating 5-6 small meals or “mini” meals about every three hours. 
  • Stay hydrated. Drinking enough fluids during cancer treatment is important for preventing dehydration. Aim to drink 64 ounces of fluid daily. Avoid drinking large amounts of caffeinated beverages. Too much caffeine can lead to dehydration.
  • Be observant of changes in bowel habits. Pancreatic cancer and treatments can often lead to changes in bowel habits including diarrhea, constipation, bloating, and gas. It is important for you to communicate with your healthcare team any changes in your bowel habits. Changes in your diet or medications may be necessary to manage these side effects.
  • Choose foods that are easy to digest. One key responsibility of the pancreas is to aid in digestion. Pancreatic tumors can affect how effective the pancreas is at digesting foods. Choose soft foods that are easy to chew. Eat slowly and chew thoroughly.
  • Choose protein-rich foods. Protein helps the body to repair cells and tissues.  It also helps your immune system recover from illness. Include a lean protein at all meals and snacks.  Good sources of lean protein include:
    • Lean meats such as chicken, fish, or turkey
    • Eggs
    • Low fat dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese or dairy substitutes
    • Nut butters
    • Beans
    • Soy foods
  • Include whole grain foods. Whole grain foods provide a good source of carbohydrate and fiber, which help keep your energy levels up. Good sources of whole grain foods include:
    • Oatmeal
    • Whole wheat breads
    • Brown rice
    • Whole grain pastas
  • Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables every day. Fruits and vegetables offer the body antioxidants, which can help fight against cancer. Choose a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables to get the greatest benefit.  Aim to eat a minimum of 5 servings of whole fruits and vegetables daily.
  • Choose sources of healthy fat. Individuals with pancreatic cancer should avoid fried, greasy, and fatty foods. These foods are difficult to digest and may cause stomach pain or discomfort. Choose baked, broiled, or grilled foods instead. Healthy fats include:
    • Olive oil
    • Avocados
    • Nuts
    • Seeds
  • Limit sweets and added sugars. It is not uncommon for individuals with pancreatic cancer to have more difficulty digesting foods high in sugar. You may experience adverse effects after eating foods high in added sugars like desserts and sweets. These foods also provide little nutritional benefit and often take the place of other foods that are better for you. You may also experience high blood sugar or high blood glucose levels. To learn more about high blood sugar and cancer, read I Have Cancer and High Blood Sugar. What Do I Do?
  • Sit up after eating.  Wait at least 1 hour before lying down. Lying down after eating can result in symptoms of heartburn. Heartburn, gas, bloating, and belching are common side effects of pancreatic cancer. Ask a registered dietitian for guidance on which foods to avoid when you have these symptoms.
  • Practice good food safety. Wash your hands often while preparing food.  Use different knives and cutting boards for raw meat and raw vegetables.  Be sure to cook all foods to their proper temperature and refrigerate leftovers right away.
  • Talk to your healthcare team before taking any vitamins or supplements.  Some medications and cancer treatments may interact with vitamins and supplements.  Choose food first as the main source for nutrients. 
  • Take pancreatic enzymes if prescribed by your healthcare team. Your cancer may affect the functionality of your pancreas which may affect your ability to digest foods properly. Your doctor may prescribe pancreatic enzymes for you to take with your meals. Pancreatic enzymes can aid in better digestion and help improve any digestive discomfort or problems you may be having.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all.  Alcohol may contribute to dehydration, can lower the abilities of your immune system, and provides no beneficial nutrients.
  • Most importantly, know that your cancer journey is unique to you and your treatment. You may experience side effects that affect your ability to follow these suggestions. If you are struggling with any side effects, such as loss of appetite, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, or any other nutrition concerns, your needs may be different.  A registered dietitian at PearlPoint Cancer Support can suggest nutrition guidelines that will be appropriate for your cancer journey – contact us at guidance@pearlpoint.org to learn more about our FREE services.