If you or a loved one has been recently diagnosed with pancreatitis, you may feel a bit lost, scared, or confused. If the diagnosis was unexpected, you may be wondering how a pancreatitis diagnosis might change your daily routines going forward. As there are many forms of pancreatitis, your case may present its own unique management challenges. However, while pancreatitis is a serious condition, in many cases, it can be managed by your doctor and care team to reduce the effect it has on your daily life.
Managing Clinical Care
Typically, pancreatitis patients are cared for by a pancreatologist, or doctor specializing in pancreatic disease, who understands the intricacies of this disorder. If you do not currently see a specialist, but would like to, it often helps to be prepared. If this is the first time with a new doctor, contact your current primary care physician to collect information about your medical and family history to share with your specialist. Alternatively, the specialist’s office may ask you to sign a release of medical records so that they can obtain them prior to your appointment. If you are nervous about your appointment, ask a trusted friend or family member to accompany you for support during the process.
Nutrition is an important part of managing pancreatitis, and your doctor may recommend changes to your diet. You may also be referred to a registered dietician. The pancreas secretes digestive enzymes to break down the food you eat, and reductions in these enzymes can cause nutritional deficiencies and malnutrition. Dietary changes may help prevent nutritional deficiencies, reduce pain and reduce the frequency of pancreatitis episodes.
In most cases, a low-fat diet is recommended, but this may require you to prepare meals from home, which is a challenge if this is not part of your normal routine. If you fall into this category, the National Pancreas Foundation (NPF) publishes a pancreatitis cookbook with low fat recipes for individuals with pancreatitis. Also, consuming smaller meals than you normally would may help you feel better and lower the digestive burden on your pancreas. If you have chronic pancreatitis (CP), you may develop exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI), a condition that requires enzyme supplementation in order to properly digest foods. Your attention to diet and necessary vitamin and enzyme supplementation may also prevent negative long-term health consequences of nutritional deficiencies, such as osteopenia or osteoporosis. Speak to your doctor if you continue to have unexplained weight loss, oily/fatty stools, or issues with digestion.
Managing Alcohol and Tobacco
Alcohol and tobacco are known to cause and worsen acute pancreatitis (AP) attacks. Abstaining from consuming alcohol and tobacco products is one of your best defenses from disease progression and painful symptoms. If you are having difficulty removing alcohol and tobacco from your routine, speak to your physician for resources that can support you as you make the effort to reduce the amount you drink or smoke.
Pain associated with pancreatitis manifests itself differently in each patient. Your pain may range from nonexistent to severe, be episodic or continuous, and it may change with disease progression. If you have recurrent acute pancreatitis (RAP) or CP, you may find it helpful to create a log or journal to track your pain level each day and share this information with your physician. For example, you might identify a certain food or activity that causes your pancreatitis to “flare-up” and cause additional pain. If your pain is severe or persistent, your doctor may be able to prescribe you a medication to make you more comfortable during an attack.
Managing Mental Health
A new pancreatitis diagnosis can be difficult to handle, even beyond the physical symptoms of the disease. It’s normal to feel temporarily sad or discouraged if you are managing pain, adapting to changes in your life due to chronic disease, or facing uncertainty. If these feelings continue, speak to your provider. Depression is treatable. If you would like to connect with others who have experienced pancreatitis, consider joining a patient support group, where you can exchange personal experiences and ask questions to others with the condition. If your condition has had an impact on your personal or professional life, consider seeing a therapist to discuss how to balance your health and relationships. A career coach, particularly one that specializes in chronic disease, can provide guidance for working with your employer or exploring alternative career options. If you think you may have depression or have thoughts about harming yourself or others, please seek out immediate medical help.
While you have been thrust into new territory with your diagnosis, take comfort in the resources around you that you can lean on for support. You can try out new recipes to share with family and friends. You can build relationships with fellow patients and gain a better understanding about what it is like to live with pancreatitis. You can speak with your doctor to ask questions about treatment options. Pancreatitis does not define you.