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 pancreatic cancers.

When might radiation therapy be used?

  • 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 (neoadjuvant treatment) to try to shrink the tumor and make it easier to remove completely.
  • 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.

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.

Getting 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 more common side effects of radiation therapy include:

  • Skin changes in areas getting radiation, ranging from redness to blistering and peeling
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss

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.

More information about radiation therapy

To learn more about how radiation is used to treat cancer, see Radiation Therapy.

To learn about some of the side effects listed here and how to manage them, see Managing Cancer-related Side Effects.

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.

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Last Medical Review: February 11, 2019 Last Revised: February 11, 2019

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