Radiotherapy for pancreatic cancer

Radiotherapy treats cancer by using high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells, while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells.

Radiotherapy is used less often than surgery or chemotherapy. Sometimes, it is used to treat pancreatic cancer that hasn’t spread but can’t be removed by surgery. For this, it may be given with chemotherapy (chemoradiation) to shrink the cancer and keep it under control for as long as possible.

Radiotherapy can also be given to relieve symptoms caused by the cancer. This is called palliative radiotherapy. It is most likely to be used to treat pain. It works by shrinking the tumour and reducing the pressure that is causing pain. Palliative radiotherapy is given at lower doses than radiotherapy used to control the cancer. It is usually given as a shorter course of treatment so it is less likely to cause side effects.

Radiotherapy is given in the hospital radiotherapy department. How the treatment is given depends on your needs. Sometimes, a single treatment is all that is needed. Or, a course of radiotherapy may be given as a series of short daily sessions. Each treatment takes 10–15 minutes. A course of treatment is usually given daily, Monday–Friday, with a rest at the weekend. Your doctor will discuss the treatment and possible side effects with you. You may be offered radiotherapy as part of a clinical trial.

Planning your radiotherapy

Radiotherapy has to be carefully planned to make sure it’s as effective as possible. It’s planned by a cancer specialist (clinical oncologist) and it may take a few visits.

On your first visit to the radiotherapy department, you’ll be asked to have a CT scan or lie under a machine called a simulator, which takes x-rays of the area to be treated.

You may need some small marks made on your skin to help the radiographer (who gives you your treatment) position you accurately and to show where the rays will be directed. These marks must stay visible throughout your treatment, and permanent marks (like tiny tattoos) are usually used. These are extremely small, and will only be done with your permission. It may be a little uncomfortable while they are done.

Treatment sessions

At the beginning of each session, the radiographer positions you carefully on the couch and makes sure you are comfortable. You will be alone in the room during treatment. But you can talk to the radiographer who is watching from the next room. Radiotherapy is not painful, but you need to lie still for a few minutes while it’s given.

Side effects

Radiotherapy for pancreatic cancer can cause side effects such as sickness, diarrhoea and tiredness. These side effects are usually mild and depend on how much treatment you are having. Your cancer specialist will be able to advise you what to expect and can give you treatments to help with any symptoms.

This treatment does not make you radioactive. It is safe for you to be with other people, including children, after your treatment.

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Possible side effects

There are things you can do to help manage the possible side effects of radiotherapy treatment.

Who might I meet?

You will meet many different specialists before, during and after radiotherapy treatment.