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Pancreatic Cancer Surgery: What to Expect at Home

Your Recovery

Surgery for pancreatic cancer removes part or all of the pancreas. Other organs might also have been removed.

Surgery for pancreatic cancer removes part or all of the pancreas. Other organs might also be removed. Your doctor may have removed:

  • the narrow end (tail) of the pancreas and the spleen. This is called a distal pancreatectomy.
  • the whole pancreas, part of the stomach, part of the small intestine, and the bile duct, gallbladder, spleen, and nearby lymph nodes. This is called a total pancreatectomy.
  • the thick end (head) of the pancreas. Your doctor may have also removed the body of the pancreas, part of the stomach, part of the small intestine, nearby lymph nodes, and the gallbladder and common bile duct. This is called a Whipple procedure.

By the time you go home, most of your pain will probably be gone. If you have pain, you will have medicine you can take. You will probably feel very tired and weak. Even simple tasks may tire you. Take naps when you wish, but try to get some exercise.

You may have trouble concentrating or difficulty sleeping. This usually goes away in 2 to 4 weeks.

You will probably be able to return to work or your normal routine in about 1 month. It will probably take about 3 months for your strength to come back fully. You may need more treatment for the cancer, such as chemotherapy or radiation.

Food may not taste good to you and may have a metallic taste. Your stomach may not empty as it should after you eat. This may cause nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite. These usually go away 2 to 6 weeks after surgery. Most people regain their normal appetite in about 8 weeks. You will probably lose some weight. This is normal.

You may have a feeding tube (J-tube) coming out of your belly. If you have one, your doctor will decide when to take it out. You may have it for several months or longer.

When you find out that you have cancer, you may feel many emotions and may need some help coping. Seek out family, friends, and counsellors for support. You also can do things at home to make yourself feel better while you go through treatment. Call the Canadian Cancer Society (1-888-939-3333) or visit its website at for more information.

This care sheet gives you a general idea about how long it will take for you to recover. But each person recovers at a different pace. Follow the steps below to get better as quickly as possible.

How can you care for yourself at home?


  • Rest when you feel tired. Getting enough sleep will help you recover. You will probably want to nap often.
  • Try to walk each day. Start by walking a little more than you did the day before. Bit by bit, increase the amount you walk. Walking boosts blood flow and helps prevent pneumonia and constipation.
  • For about 4 to 6 weeks after surgery, avoid lifting anything that would make you strain. This may include a child, heavy grocery bags and milk containers, a heavy briefcase or backpack, cat litter or dog food bags, or a vacuum cleaner.
  • Avoid strenuous activities, such as biking, jogging, weight lifting, or aerobic exercise, until your doctor says it is okay.
  • You may shower, if your doctor okays it. Pat the cut (incision) dry. Follow your doctor's instructions about showering with your drain and how to empty and care for it. Keep your feeding tube taped to your skin so it will not fall off. After showering, clean the tube site, dry it well, and replace the dressing if you have one.
  • Ask your doctor when you can drive again.
  • You will probably be able to return to work about 4 weeks after you leave the hospital.
  • Your doctor will tell you when you can have sex again.


  • Sometimes the stomach empties food into the small intestine too quickly. This is called dumping syndrome. It can cause diarrhea and make you feel faint, shaky, and nauseated. It also can make it hard for your body to get enough nutrition.
    • High-sugar foods—such as desserts, soda pop, and fruit juices—are most likely to cause dumping syndrome. Avoid high-sugar foods, or use products that have sugar substitutes if sugar gives you a problem.
    • Do not drink liquids within a half hour before eating and up to an hour after eating. Liquids move food even more quickly into the small intestine. Quick emptying of the stomach increases the chance of diarrhea.
    • Eat slowly. Try to chew each bite about 20 times. Allow 20 to 30 minutes for each meal.
    • Eat 5 or 6 small meals or snacks a day. This may keep you from feeling too full after eating and may reduce problems with diarrhea and dumping syndrome.
  • If the surgeon did not remove any part of your stomach, you can eat your normal diet. But the surgery affects everyone's digestion differently. You may need to eat more smaller meals instead of fewer larger meals. You may have to try several foods to see what tastes good to you.
  • Eat healthy food. If you do not feel like eating, try to eat food that has protein and extra calories to keep up your strength and prevent weight loss. Drink liquid meal replacements for extra calories and protein. If your stomach is upset, try bland, low-fat foods like plain rice, broiled chicken, toast, and yogurt.
  • Whenever you eat, you may have to take enzyme pills to replace those the pancreas makes. These help you digest your food, especially fat.
  • You may notice that your bowel movements are not regular right after your surgery. This is common. Try to avoid constipation and straining with bowel movements. You may want to take a fibre supplement every day. If you have not had a bowel movement after a couple of days, ask your doctor about taking a mild laxative.


  • Your doctor will tell you if and when you can restart your medicines. He or she will also give you instructions about taking any new medicines.
  • If you take blood thinners, such as warfarin (Coumadin), clopidogrel (Plavix), or aspirin, be sure to talk to your doctor. He or she will tell you if and when to start taking those medicines again. Make sure that you understand exactly what your doctor wants you to do.
  • You may have to take anti-ulcer medicine for stomach ulcers.
  • You may have diabetes. If this is the case, you may have to check your blood sugar and give yourself insulin shots every day.
  • You may need to take enzyme supplements to replace enzymes the pancreas makes.
  • Take pain medicines exactly as directed. If the doctor gave you a prescription medicine for pain, take it as prescribed.
    • If you are not taking a prescription pain medicine, ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter medicine.
    • Do not take more than two pain medicines at the same time unless your doctor told you to. Many pain medicines contain Tylenol, which is also called acetaminophen. If you take too much acetaminophen, you can become very sick.
  • If you think your pain medicine is making you sick to your stomach:
    • Take your medicine after meals (unless your doctor has told you not to).
    • Ask your doctor for a different pain medicine.
  • If your doctor prescribed antibiotics, take them as directed. Do not stop taking them just because you feel better. You need to take the full course of antibiotics.

Incision care

  • You may feel a ridge along the incision, or cut. This is normal, and it will go away in a few weeks.
  • Wash the area daily with warm, soapy water and pat it dry, unless your doctor tells you not to. Don’t use hydrogen peroxide or alcohol as they can slow the healing process.
  • If you have strips of tape on the cut, leave the tape on for a week or until it falls off.
  • You may see a small amount of clear or light red fluid staining your dressing. This is normal.
  • You may cover the area with a gauze bandage if it is oozing fluid or rubbing against your clothing. If you choose to use a bandage, change it every day.


  • Regular exercise will help you regain strength. Start with walking every day. Your doctor will tell you when you can do more.

Other instructions

  • You may have a drain near your incision. Your doctor will tell you how to take care of it.
  • You may have a feeding tube in your belly. Your doctor will show you how to use it and take care of it.
    • It is normal to have some yellowish fluid around your feeding tube. This is not a sign of infection.
    • Keep your feeding tube clamped unless you are using it.
    • Keep it taped to your skin at all times.
    • Clean around the tube with water before and after you use it.
    • Flush the tube daily as your doctor tells you to.
    • Wash your hands before and after handling the tube or can of formula.
    • Wash the top of the can of formula before you open it.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

When should you call for help?

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You passed out (lost consciousness).
  • You are short of breath.

Call your doctor or nurse call line now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have pain that does not get better after you take pain medicine.
  • You have loose stitches, or your incision comes open.
  • Bright red blood has soaked through the bandage over your incision.
  • You cannot pass stools or gas.
  • You are sick to your stomach or cannot drink fluids.
  • You have signs of a blood clot in your leg (called a deep vein thrombosis), such as:
    • Pain in your calf, back of the knee, thigh, or groin.
    • Redness or swelling in your leg.
  • You have signs of infection, such as:
    • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness.
    • Red streaks leading from the incision.
    • Pus draining from the incision.
    • A fever.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor or nurse call line if you have any problems.

Where can you learn more?

Go to

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