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 exocrine pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (PNETs) don’t respond well to radiation, so it is rarely used to treat these tumors. Radiation is sometimes used to treat PNETs 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, “Ablative techniques 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. Having this type of radiation therapy is like having an x-ray, except that each treatment lasts longer, and the patient usually receives 5 treatments per week over a period of weeks or months.

Patients may receive preoperative (before surgery) or postoperative (after surgery) treatment. If surgery is planned, preoperative treatment is often preferred because postoperative treatment often has to be delayed for several weeks while the patient recovers from surgery. Treatment right after surgery can interfere with wound healing.

Radiation therapy combined with chemotherapy (called chemoradiation or chemoradiotherapy) may be used in patients whose exocrine pancreatic tumors are too widespread to be removed by surgery. It is also sometimes used after surgery, to help keep the cancer from coming back.

Some of the common side effects of radiation therapy include:

  • Mild skin changes (like a sunburn)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Poor appetite
  • Weight loss

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.

Learn more about radiation therapy in our document Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.


Last Medical Review: 01/28/2013
Last Revised: 02/05/2014