What is radiotherapy?

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

Radiotherapy is not used as often as chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer.

Your doctor or nurse will explain how radiotherapy may be helpful in your situation. 

Chemoradiation

You may have radiotherapy to treat pancreatic cancer that has not spread, but cannot be removed by surgery. It may be given with chemotherapy (called chemoradiation). This aims to shrink the cancer and control it for as long as possible. The side effects of chemoradiation are more severe so you have to be well enough to cope with this. 

You may be offered chemoradiation as part of a cancer research trial.

Palliative radiotherapy

Radiotherapy can also be used to relieve symptoms that the cancer is causing. This is called palliative radiotherapy. It is usually given to treat pain. It shrinks the tumour and reduces the pressure that is causing pain.

If you are having palliative radiotherapy to control the cancer, you will have it in lower doses. It is also usually a shorter course of treatment. So it is less likely to cause side effects.

Stereotactic radiotherapy

You may also have stereotactic radiotherapy. This is a specialist way of giving radiotherapy, using a specially adapted radiotherapy machine. The machine delivers beams of radiotherapy from many different angles, which overlap at the tumour. This means the tumour gets a high dose of radiotherapy, but surrounding tissues get a low dose.

Having radiotherapy for pancreatic cancer

You will have radiotherapy in the hospital radiotherapy department. Sometimes a single treatment is all that you need. Or you may have a course of radiotherapy as a series of short daily sessions.

Each treatment takes 10 to 15 minutes. You usually have a course of treatment daily, Monday to Friday, with a rest at the weekend. Your doctor will discuss the treatment and possible side effects with you.

We have more general information about having radiotherapy.

Side effects of radiotherapy for pancreatic cancer

Radiotherapy for pancreatic cancer can cause side effects,  such as:

  • sickness
  • loss of appetite
  • diarrhoea
  • tiredness.

These side effects are usually mild. They will depend on how much treatment you are having.

Having radiotherapy with chemotherapy (chemoradiation) can makes the side effects of treatment worse. Your cancer specialist will be able to advise you what to expect. They can also give you drugs to help with any side effects.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our pancreatic cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    British Society of Gastroenterology. Guidelines for the management of patients with pancreatic cancer peri-ampullary and ampullary carcinomas. 2005.

    European Society for Medial Oncology. Cancer of the pancreas: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. Annals of Oncology, 2015. 26 (Supplement 5): v56 to v68.

    Fernandez-del Castillo. Clinical manifestations, diagnosis, and staging of exocrine pancreatic cancer. UpToDate online. Jan 2018.

    Fernandez-del Castillo C, et al. Supportive care of the patient with locally advanced or metastatic exocrine pancreatic cancer. UpToDate online. Feb 2017. 

    Winter JM, et al. Cancer of the pancreas, DeVita Hellman and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (10th edition). Lippincott Williams and Wilkins. 2016.


  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Professor Tim Iveson, Consultant Medical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.