Radiation Therapy for Pancreatic Cancer

Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays (or particles) to kill cancer cells.

When might radiation therapy be used?

Radiation therapy can be helpful in treating some exocrine pancreatic cancers (the most common type of pancreatic cancer). It can be used in different situations to treat these cancers:

  • Radiation might be given after surgery (known as adjuvant treatment) to try to lower the chance of the cancer coming back. The radiation is typically given along with chemotherapy, which is together known as chemoradiation or chemoradiotherapy.
  • For borderline resectable tumors, radiation might be given (along with chemotherapy) before surgery to try to shrink the tumor and make it easier to remove.
  • Radiation therapy (combined with chemotherapy) may be used as part of the main treatment 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 for other treatments like surgery.

Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (NETs) don’t respond well to radiation, so it’s not often 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 in the form of radioembolization to treat NETs that have spread to the liver, which was discussed in Ablation or Embolization Treatments for Pancreatic Cancer.

How is radiation therapy given?

The type of radiation most often used to treat pancreatic cancer, known as external beam radiation therapy, focuses radiation from a source outside of the body on the cancer.

Before your treatment starts, your radiation team will take careful measurements to find the correct angles for aiming the radiation beams and the proper dose of radiation. This planning session, called simulation, usually includes getting imaging tests such as CT or MRI scans.

The treatment 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 more common side effects of radiation therapy include:

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

Usually these effects go away within a few weeks after the treatment is complete. Ask your doctor what side effects to expect and how to prevent or relieve them.

To learn more about radiation therapy, see the Radiation Therapy section of our website.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: March 14, 2016 Last Revised: May 31, 2016

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