One of the main functions of the pancreas is to produce and release a number of enzymes that help the body break down food and absorb nutrients. But pancreatic cancer and its treatments can cause the pancreas to make fewer of these essential enzymes — a condition known as exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI).
Patients with EPI may experience a malabsorption of nutrients from foods, which can cause ongoing digestive issues like stomach pain, weight loss, gas, changes in stools, and diarrhea. EPI is common among pancreatic cancer patients, but there are many resources to help you manage it.
Good nutritional care improves outcomes and is critical for a patient’s quality of life. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) strongly recommends that patients have access to pancreatic enzymes and see a registered dietitian.
Studies show that pancreatic enzyme supplements, when taken properly, can be especially helpful.
Your healthcare team can help you address EPI along with all dietary issues. PanCAN Patient Services can also provide information on these supplements and other diet and nutrition topics. And your fellow survivors are always ready to share their best tips.
Here are eight tips for managing EPI, coming from survivors in PanCAN’s community and reviewed by PanCAN:
- Take digestive enzymes at the beginning of your meal or snack, and the right amount of them. “Work with your oncologist and/or dietitian.” Marie Durbin
- Eat small, frequent meals. “This is what I have gotten used to doing and do not feel bloated.” Ralph Cheney
- Find what foods work for you. “I try to stay away from spicy foods, and salads are not friendly to my system. But each individual needs to find what works best to maintain good balance.” Ralph Cheney
- Eat your food with minimal fluids. “This will help you retain the food in your digestive system longer thus increasing the chance of absorption. After you eat, wait about 20-30 minutes and then hydrate, hydrate!” Marie Durbin
- Exercise. “I enjoy yoga and walking and find it to be helpful. I was surprised that getting out and doing a small walk helped with my overall digestive difficulties.” Roberta Luna
- Know where the nearest bathrooms are. “When away from home, it’s good to know where restrooms might be. There are a few apps out there to help. You put in your location and it will give you locations of the nearest bathrooms.” Roberta Luna
- Get resources. “I recommend everyone reach out to PanCAN and speak to PanCAN Patient Services as soon as possible. They can provide a wealth of information on many topics and they have been my go-to call for many issues over the years.” Ralph Cheney
- Build a support system. “Keeping positive people around helps you get through the tougher days.” Joe Vanderloop