Radiotherapy for pancreatic cancer

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 surgery or chemotherapy. You may have radiotherapy to treat pancreatic cancer that has not spread, but cannot be removed by surgery. In this case, you might have it with chemotherapy (called chemoradiation). This aims to shrink the cancer and control it for as long as possible. You may be offered radiotherapy as part of a cancer research trial.

You may also have radiotherapy to relieve symptoms that the cancer is causing. This is called palliative radiotherapy. You will most likely have it to treat pain. It works by shrinking the tumour. This reduces the pressure that is causing pain. If you are having palliative radiotherapy to control the cancer, you will have lower doses than usual. It is also usually a shorter course of treatment. So it is less likely to cause side effects.

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.

You will have radiotherapy in the hospital radiotherapy department. How you will have the treatment depends on your needs. 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.

Planning your radiotherapy

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

On your first visit to the radiotherapy department, you will 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.

Someone having a CT scan

Having a CT scan

A radiographer explains how a CT scan works, and Jyoti talks about her experience.

About our cancer information videos

Having a CT scan

A radiographer explains how a CT scan works, and Jyoti talks about her experience.

About our cancer information videos

Treatment sessions

At the beginning of each radiotherapy session, the radiographer will position you carefully on the couch. They will make sure you are comfortable.

During your treatment, you will be alone in the room. But you can talk to the radiographer, who will watch you from the next room.

Radiotherapy is not painful. But you must lie still for a few minutes during treatment.

Side effects

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 make the side effects of treatment worse. Your cancer specialist will be able to advise you what to expect. They will also give you treatments to help with any side effects.

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.