Pancreatic Cancer

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Treating Pancreatic Cancer TOPICS

Radiation therapy for pancreatic cancer

Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays (or particles) to kill cancer cells. It can be helpful in treating some exocrine pancreatic cancers. Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (NETs) don’t respond well to radiation, so it is rarely used to treat these tumors. Radiation is sometimes used to treat pancreatic NETs that have spread to the bone and are causing pain. It may also be used to treat these tumors in the form of radioembolization, which was discussed in the section “Ablation or embolization treatments for pancreatic cancer.”

External beam radiation therapy is the type of radiation therapy most often used in treating cancers of the exocrine pancreas. This treatment focuses the radiation on the cancer from a machine outside the body.

Radiation can be used in different situations for exocrine pancreas cancers:

  • If surgery is planned, a person may get radiation before surgery (preoperative or neoadjuvant treatment) or after surgery (postoperative or adjuvant treatment). The radiation is typically given along with chemotherapy, which is together known as chemoradiation or chemoradiotherapy. Preoperative treatment is often preferred because postoperative treatment often has to be delayed for several weeks while the person recovers from surgery. Treatment right after surgery can interfere with wound healing.
  • Radiation therapy (combined with chemotherapy) may be used in people whose cancers have grown beyond the pancreas and can’t be removed by surgery (locally advanced/unresectable cancers).
  • Radiation is sometimes used to help relieve symptoms such as pain in people with advanced cancers or in people who aren’t healthy enough have other treatments like surgery.

Before your treatment starts, the radiation team will take careful measurements to determine the correct angles for aiming the radiation beams and the proper dose of radiation. Radiation therapy is much like getting an x-ray, but the radiation is stronger. The procedure itself is painless. Each treatment lasts only a few minutes, although the setup time – getting you into place for treatment – usually takes longer. Most often, radiation treatments are given 5 days a week for several weeks.

Possible side effects

Some of the common side effects of radiation therapy include:

Radiation can also lower blood counts and can increase the risk of serious infection.

Usually these effects go away a few weeks after the treatment is complete. When radiation is given with chemotherapy the side effects are often worse. Ask your doctor what side effects to expect and how to prevent or relieve them.

For more general information about radiation therapy, please see the “Radiation Therapy” section of our website or our document Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.

Last Medical Review: 06/11/2014
Last Revised: 01/09/2015