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 during and after cancer treatment can help you feel better, maintain your strength, and speed your recovery.

Know your risk. Pancreatic cancer and treatment increase the risk for nutrition issues, including malnutrition. Malnutrition occurs when a person is not receiving or absorbing proper nutrition and the right amount of calories and nutrients needed for healthy bodily function. Malnutrition increases the risk for health complications, hospitalizations, and poor quality of life. Tell your healthcare team immediately about any new or worsening side effects or weight loss. For more on pancreatic cancer, visit our recommended resources.

Receive ongoing nutrition support. You may need ongoing support from a registered dietitian in your area, especially if you experience ongoing weight loss or severe side effects such as loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. Ask your healthcare team for a referral to local registered dietitian who specializes in helping cancer patients. You can also ask your health insurance provider for a referral or use the Find an Expert tool provided by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). (You may also schedule a time to talk to one of our registered dietitians for general education and guidance, but you would benefit most from having a registered dietitian as a member of your healthcare team.)

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 grains. Whole grains provide a good source of carbohydrate and fiber, which help keep your energy levels up. Good sources of whole grains 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. Read more about Food Safety.

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.

If surgery is part of your treatment plan, follow your surgeon’s instructions closely. A Whipple procedure is a surgery used to treat pancreatic cancer. If your healthcare team recommends a Whipple procedure, read Nutrition Guidelines Following a Whipple Procedure to learn more.

Most importantly, know that your cancer journey is unique to you and your treatment.

Recommended Resource for Pancreatic Cancer

  • Pancreatic Cancer Action Network
    Phone: (877) 573-9971
    The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) provides educational information on pancreatic cancer and treatment and support to those affected by pancreatic cancer. For one-on-one support, contact a PanCAN Patient Central Associate by calling their helpline or via email.
  • CancerCare Support Groups 
    Phone: (800) 813-HOPE (4673)
    CancerCare offers online and telephone support groups for patients with pancreatic cancer.

For more resources, visit PearlPoint’s Recommended Resources page.