What to Expect after a Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosis

Guidance and support through treatment and recovery.

Knowing what to expect after a pancreatic cancer diagnosis can calm your fears and give you a sense of control.

Our pancreatic cancer team meets with hundreds of patients just like you to answer questions and explain what happens next. You won’t be alone in the process.

  • Your first clinic appointment

    Henry Ford’s multidisciplinary pancreatic cancer team brings experience from one of the nation’s biggest pancreatic cancer programs. 

    The team will meet with you in a single appointment to plan your care. 

    Your team will include several doctors, nurses, physician assistants, advance practice nurses, dietitians, your personal support team and others. They are here to help with any needs or concerns that you and your personal support team may have.

    Personalized treatment

    After you receive a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, we’ll work with you to decide the right course of action.

    Our experts collaborate on every patient’s case during our weekly tumor board meeting to draw on the expertise of specialists from many fields to design the most effective treatment plan for you.

    Our tumor board includes experts in:

    • Surgical oncology
    • Medical oncology
    • Radiation oncology
    • Interventional gastroenterology
    • Pathology
    • Radiology (specializing in the gastrointestinal tract)
    • Clinical trials 
    • Psycho-oncology
    • Nurse navigators
  • Preparing for surgery

    Pancreatic surgery may be part of your treatment plan. 

    Our team will refer you to a Henry Ford team of experts who specialize in evaluating patients for surgery. This team of experts will help to determine your ability to undergo a safe operation, as well as offer other recommendations to help you prepare for surgery. 

    That preparation may include:

    • Exercise: Pancreatic surgery will place a significant amount of stress on your body. Your body will undergo many changes and will need to work harder than normal. It is possible to train for these demands to help reduce complications and to shorten the recovery period. Your main goals should be a daily minimum of 90 minutes of cardiovascular fitness to increase your activity level. Your health care provider will help determine the most appropriate type of activities for you. 

    • Diet and Nutrition: Weight loss is a common side effect of pancreas cancer. Many patients have already lost weight by the time they are diagnosed. To best prepare for surgery, it is important to maintain appropriate nutrition. Our multidisciplinary team includes a dietitian who can help tailor a plan that best meets your needs, as well as establish guidelines for what are acceptable and healthy increases or decreases in your weight. 

    • Diabetes management: Patients who have pancreatic cancer may have a history of diabetes or be newly diagnosed with diabetes. It is important to have blood sugars under control before surgery. Elevated blood sugars can interfere in both the healing process and the body’s ability to fight off infection. Your Henry Ford team will help manage your blood sugars and diabetes treatments as part of your post-operative care.  

    • Smoking cessation: Smoking is one of the primary risk factors for all types of cancers, especially pancreas cancer. If you smoke, we recommend that you quit smoking. Henry Ford's trained tobacco cessation experts can provide you with the treatment needed to overcome the physical, emotional, and social dependency on tobacco.

    • Social considerations. Our multidisciplinary pancreatic cancer team includes social workers, who are licensed professional counselors available to assist you any time during their care. Our social workers help our patients with coping, adjustment and financial concerns, and provide education and linkage with community resources. 

    • Anesthesia. Before surgery, you will see an anesthesiologist, a doctor trained to give anesthetics and to oversee maintenance of patients under sedation during surgery. Anesthetics are drugs that cause a loss of feeling with or without a loss of consciousness. When you meet with your anesthesiologist, but sure to tell them if you are taking any of the following:
    • Over-the-counter medicines, vitamins and herbs 
    • Herbal supplements such as gingko biloba, garlic, ginger, ginseng, St. John's Wort, or kava-kava. These products can cause excess blood loss or prolong your anesthesia
    •  Aspirin or aspirin products
    • Anti-inflammatory medicines (such as products that contain ibuprofen)
    • Blood thinners (Warfarin, Plavix)
    • Vitamins or minerals 
  • The day before your surgery

    Our team will provide you with instructions to help you prepare for your surgery. It is important to stay hydrated prior to surgery. We recommend drinking fluids approximately 2 liters to 2 ½ liters the day before surgery.

    Additional pre-surgery preparation includes:  

    • Diet. Do not eat or drink anything after midnight the night before your surgery. You may brush your teeth and rinse your mouth with mouthwash. Avoid swallowing any water or mouthwash. This will help prevent possible complications while you are asleep under anesthesia. 
    • Medications. Your anesthesiologist may allow you to take your medication with a small amount of water.  
    • Skin care. The night before, or the morning of, your surgery, wash your body thoroughly with soap and water. You may be asked to use a special soap and to not use deodorants, lotions, powders or anything else on your skin. You may want to wash your hair because you may not feel like doing so for several days after surgery. 
  • What to expect after your surgery

    After your surgery, your surgery team will continuously check on your progress in the hospital. A health care team member will help you sit on the side of the bed and then stand, as well as encourage you to walk around your room. 

    Stitches, staples or possibly medical glue will be applied to your incision. Your health care team will check your incision regularly to make sure there is no bleeding or signs of infection. 

    You will be instructed to do the following exercises to help prevent lung complications: 

    • Take multiple deep breaths and cough each hour while you are awake. Be sure to cough; do not just clear your throat. Hug a pillow, inhale deeply and then cough. 
    • Use an incentive spirometer 10 times per hour. This is a device that promotes deep breathing and measures the amount of air inhaled. Each time, inhale deeply while holding the little ball at the top of the spirometer for three seconds. These exercises decrease the risk for developing pneumonia after surgery. 


    You will wake up in the intensive care unit (ICU), an area in the hospital where patients are closely monitored. The step-down unit is a similar unit, but is for patients who need less intense care. 

    • You may not see clearly at first due to a protective lubricant in your eyes.
    • You may be breathing with the help of a ventilator, a device that will be removed once you are fully awake and able to breathe on your own.
    • You may have a sore throat for a day or two. Your mouth may feel dry so we will give you small amounts of ice chips.
    • Compression boots are inflating/deflating devices worn to improve blood circulation in the legs after surgery. Once you begin walking, likely the day after surgery, these will be removed.

    Pain management

    You will receive medicine that can help relieve or decrease your pain so that you can move around and recover faster. For the first few days, you will receive continuous doses of pain medicine through an epidural line, a small tube placed in the lower back. 

    You will also be able to give yourself doses of pain medicine as needed by a patient-controlled analgesia (PCA) pump. A PCA pump is a push-button pump that releases doses of pain medicine as needed through an IV, as determined by the patient. 

    Medicine to prevent stomach ulcers

    You may develop stomach ulcers after surgery. If you do, you will need to take anti-ulcer medicine for the rest of your life. Your doctor, physician assistant, nurse practitioner or nurse will give you more information about this medicine. This medicine will also help to protect the re-connections from bleeding that were made during surgery. 

    Pancreatic enzymes

    Pancreatic cancer or the treatments for pancreatic cancer, including the removal of part of the pancreas, may change the way the body digests food. When this happens, patients may benefit from taking pancreas enzymes. 

    Eating after surgery

    Patients typically begin a clear liquid diet when they are ready to eat food after surgery. The diet will gradually include other foods as you heal. 

    Your ability to eat foods depends on how your digestive system and stomach are working. Some patients can eat a regular diet with limited fat and limited fiber content. Eating a low-fat and low-fiber diet also helps the stomach to empty faster and avoid digestive problems. 

    Our team’s dietitian will work with you to create a diet plan to help you recover, while intaking enough calories and adjusting to your changing tastes.

  • Home care and rehabilitation

    While hospitalized, a multi-disciplinary team of doctors, physical and occupational therapists, social workers and others will assess whether you have sufficient support at home for the early stages of your recovery, or whether you will require transfer to a rehabilitation facility to continue your recovery.

    You will need help at home in the first month or two. It will take as much as six months of recovery before returning to more normal activities of daily living.

    Our team may recommend that you follow these daily activity guidelines:

    • Get up and get dressed 
    • Walk and climb stairs at least four times per day. By increasing your activity each day, you will decrease the likelihood of problems after surgery such as pneumonia, blood clots in the legs and abdominal cramping
    • Do not drive until after you are no longer taking pain medicine. You may go out with friends and family to the grocery store, library, church, and other daily living activities. 
    • Do not lift objects heavier than 10 pounds for at least six weeks after your operation.

    You will have regular clinic appointments with our team once you return home after surgery. If you experience any of the following symptoms, please call the pancreatic cancer team immediately:  

    • A temperature higher than 100.4°F (38° C).
    • Fluid drainage from your incision, increasing pain, redness or warmth
    • Vomiting or diarrhea
    • Severe pain 
    • Shortness of breath 
    • Pain or swelling in your legs 
    • Your overall condition becomes worse
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