Coping With Pancreatic Cancer

Living Well After Diagnosis

It's normal to have trouble coping with a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Trying to understand the disease, your treatment options, the financial aspects, and the changes it forces on your life can leave you confused and not sure where to even start.

As difficult as it all is to handle, you can find ways to cope with everything you're now facing because of your illness.

Emotional Coping

People have all kinds of different emotional reactions to having pancreatic cancer. Fear, anger, denial, confusion, depression, anxiety, grief, and even guilt are common. You may experience any or all of these and any of a host of other feelings. While they're normal, they can also be overwhelming.

The poor prognosis for pancreatic cancer is certain to heighten the stress of the diagnosis. Don't hesitate to seek help dealing with it. It can help to talk to your doctor and others on your healthcare team, your family, or other people who've dealt with the disease either in themselves or in a loved one.

Online Support Groups

Online support groups can be a valuable resource and one that's available at any time. You don't have to leave your house, so it won't be a strain on you if your symptoms or treatments are taking a toll. These typically provide you with people to talk to who've gone through or are currently going through what you're experiencing. That can be a huge help when you're fighting to make sense of everything.

However, online support groups tend to lack professional viewpoints and guidance. For that reason, you should always seek advice from your doctor or other healthcare providers. Your doctor can help you decide whether you should see a mental-health professional and help you find a good one. Your medical team is also a good source of referrals to support groups in your area.

The important thing is that you reach out when you have trouble dealing with your emotions. You're not alone—there are people and resources available to help you as you go through this.

Coping With Pain

If you haven't dealt with chronic pain before, you may be taken aback by how much of an impact cancer pain has on you. It can lead to bad moods, problems sleeping (which increases your fatigue), and difficulty concentrating. When you can't get pain relief, it can even lead to desperation and panic.

You may want to get by without taking a lot of painkillers. They're often viewed negatively because of the potential for addiction as well as the impairment and other side effects they can have. On top of that, overdose is a real risk when you're dealing with severe pain.

Be sure to talk to your doctor about any concerns you may have about pain medications—it may be that the reward is worth the risk. Know that it's harder to combat pain once it gets beyond your endurance level than it is if you take meds before it gets too bad, and consider the difference pain control could have on your quality of life.

Also remember that just because a medicine is available over the counter (OTC), that doesn't mean it's perfectly safe. For instance, too much acetaminophen, the drug in Tylenol and a host of other OTC products, can lead to potentially fatal liver toxicity. Anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen (Aleve, Motrin, etc.) and naproxen (Aleve) can also be hard on your liver. Plus, many times, your doctor may not want you to take them because they can mask a fever and other signs that will indicate that something is wrong.

Coping With Fatigue

Cancer fatigue is hard to deal with as well. Anyone who lives with it knows there's a big difference between being kind of sleepy and the all-out, zero-energy fatigue that can come with disease.

Before you up your caffeine intake or turn to supplements or other methods of combatting fatigue, be sure to talk to your doctor. Also, ask about any supplements or herbal treatments you're considering—some of them may interact negatively with your other treatments.

It's a good idea to set aside time every day to rest or nap and to make sure you have extra time to rest and recuperate after a big event. You may also need to redefine "big event," as it could now include something as simple as a trip to the grocery store.

Also, don't hesitate to use assistance when available (for example, grocery stores may offer motorized cars). Some people feel awkward about using them if they're able to walk or don't have a visible disability, but they're there for anyone who needs them. It's better to use them than to be wiped out afterward because you didn't. Again, consider what's best for your quality of life.

Generally, however, you should try to stay as active as you can. You'll need to find a balance between doing too much and doing too little and that's a unique point only you can determine. A 2014 case study suggested that exercise may help people with pancreatic cancer sleep better, manage fatigue, and reduce psychological distress. And this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to managing cancer fatigue. It can help to employ a variety of strategies.

Coping With Dietary Issues

While it may be harder to watch your diet when you're dealing with treatments, symptoms, and the emotional impacts of your cancer, not taking care of your blood sugars can leave you feeling significantly worse. It can worsen fatigue issues as well as your mood. Be sure to follow the diet your doctor recommends and check your blood sugar as directed if needed.

If the dietary issues are too much for you to deal with, you may want to have a family member or caregiver manage them for you. It might help to see a dietitian, as well.

You may find that, since your diagnosis, everyone around you seems to think they're an expert on what you should or shouldn't eat. Don't go for fad diets just because some TV doctor or blogger said it cures cancer—if that were true, your doctor would've told you about it.

If you're researching dietary issues or other treatments online, even if they sound legitimate, be sure to run them by your doctor before you try them. There's a lot of bad advice out there couched in language that makes it sound science-based when it really isn't.

Coping With Side Effects

Chemotherapy Side Effects

Chemotherapy, radiation, and other drugs all come with possible side effects that you may have to cope with.

Common chemotherapy side effects include:

Not everyone will experience every side effect. Your doctor may be able to offer treatments for some of the ones you have, such as Ativan for nausea and vomiting, so speak up about them. You may also want to consider well-researched, safe natural remedies.

Radiation Side Effects

Radiation has some of the same side effects as chemotherapy, such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Hair loss
  • Increased risk of infection
  • Skin problems (although the specific problems are different) 

You may also experience:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Fertility problems
  • Other problems specific to the treatment areas

Again, talk to your doctor about treatments for these side effects and whether natural remedies may help you.

Other Drug Side Effects

Every drug you take comes with potential side effects. That includes cancer drugs as well as drugs you may be prescribed for helping with side effects of chemotherapy or radiation.

It's a good idea to keep lists of potential side effects—especially any that can be dangerous—where it's easy to refer to. Make sure your family and/or caregiver(s) are familiar with them as well.

Keep the lines of communication open with your healthcare team so they can help you identify and manage any unpleasant side effects you may have.

Social Coping

You're likely to experience a lot of social changes due to your illness and treatments, and these can be emotionally difficult. Both the symptoms of and treatments for cancer may make you unable to work or participate in the things you enjoy. This can leave you socially isolated on top of impacting your idea of who you are.

Additionally, a lot of people don't know how to deal with serious illness in someone they know. They may treat you differently. Your role at home is likely to change, as well, which can be stressful to your family. If it's creating a lot of stress and problems, you may want to consider family counseling.

Speak Openly

No matter the relationship, try to have honest conversations about your feelings. Understand that your diagnosis has a big impact on the people around you and that they may be feeling fear, anger, or a range of other emotions. Don't take their reaction personally—it's directed at the disease, not at you.

Find a Support System

It's important to establish a support system. That can include family, friends, your healthcare team, and support groups both online and in your community.

Often, people in your life want to help but don't know how. Reach out when you need something and be specific. Do you need someone to go to the grocery store for you? Help with laundry? Drive you to a medical appointment? Let people know.

It can be hard to ask for help and you might feel guilty, but keep in mind that the people who care about you may feel helpless in the face of what you're going through as well, and they could be grateful for the opportunity to do something.

If you're eventually able to return to work and resume your former role in the household, don't expect things to go back to how they used to be. You've changed, and your relationships have changed. Give yourself time to figure out what your life is going to look like now.

Practical Matters

You've likely got a lot of practical considerations to deal with. It can be hard to make yourself address them, but it's necessary. Putting them behind you, or getting the ball rolling, can help relieve stress and make you feel more grounded and in control. (And remember to ask for help if you need it!)

Medical Bills

Chief among your concerns may be medical bills and insurance. You or someone close to you should talk to your insurance company to make sure you understand what will and won't be covered. You may be eligible for government programs as well. A social worker should be able to help walk you through any options that may be available.

Continuing to Work

At work, you have a right to reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Work with your supervisor or someone in human resources to see what might make you able to work more comfortably.

If you're not able to work, look into disability insurance through your employer and consider medical leave instead of quitting so your benefits will continue. If you can't keep your job or aren't working, you may want to consider filing for Social Security disability.

Future Planning

You may also want to do things like writing up a will and an advance directive. Look into hospice to see what it offers before you need it. Get things in order as much as you can so you don't stress.

Also, you might want to consider home health care, where a trained medical professional comes in to assist you and your caregiver(s).

Times may be difficult. Be sure to communicate your needs to those around you and take advantage of the resources that are there to help. You don't have to go through this alone.

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