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Radiation Therapy for Pancreatic Neuroendocrine Tumor

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

Surgery is the main treatment for most pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (NETs), but radiation therapy may be an option for those who can’t have surgery for some reason. It may also be given after surgery in some cases if there’s a chance some of the tumor was not removed and is causing problems. 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. (See Ablation or Embolization Treatments for Pancreatic Neuroendocrine Tumor.)

External beam radiation therapy

External beam radiation therapy uses a machine that delivers a beam of radiation to a specific part of the body.

Before your treatment starts, the radiation team will determine the correct angles for aiming the radiation beams and the proper dose of radiation. 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, but this can vary based on the reason it’s being given.

Some 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
  • Low blood counts, which can increase the risk of serious infection.

Usually these side 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.

Radioactive drugs


Radioembolization combines embolization with radiation therapy and can be used to treat liver metastases. Small beads called microspheres are attached to a radioactive element called yttrium-90 (or 90Y) and then injected into an artery close to the liver. The beads travel in the liver blood vessels until they get stuck in small blood vessels near the tumor. There they give off radioactivity for a short while, killing nearby tumor cells. The radiation travels a very short distance, so its effects are limited mainly to the tumor.

Peptide receptor radionuclide therapy (PRRT)

People with somatostatin receptor-positive neuroendocrine tumors may be candidates for PRRT. In PRRT, a radioactive element is linked to a small part (peptide) of a somatostatin analog, and injected into a vein in the arm. The drug travels throughout the body, attaches to the somatostatin receptor (a protein) on the cancer cell, and gives off radiation to kill it. The radiation is delivered directly to the tumor, so there is less effect on healthy tissue. There are several drugs that might be used:

  • The radioactive element Yttrium-90
  • The radioactive element Lutathera (lutetium or Lu-177 dotatate)

If you are already taking octreotide or lanreotide, you will most likely need to stop taking these medicines for a certain time before you can be treated with PRRT.

Common side effects of PRRT include low levels of white blood cells, abnormal liver tests, nausea and vomiting, high levels of blood sugar, and pain.

Serious side effects include low levels of blood cells, development of certain blood or bone marrow cancers, kidney damage, liver damage, abnormal levels of hormones in the body, and infertility. Tell your cancer care team if you are pregnant or might become pregnant, because Lu-177 dotatate can harm the baby. There is not enough information regarding Yttrium-90 in pregnant women so you should discuss this with your doctor. 

Since these drugs expose you to radiation, people who might come into contact with you need to follow certain radiation safety practices to limit their exposure. See Systemic Radiation Therapy for more information.

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 editors and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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Last Revised: October 30, 2018

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