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Radiotherapy for advanced cancer

Find out what happens when you have radiotherapy for advanced pancreatic cancer.

Radiotherapy uses high energy x-rays to kill cancer cells. It aims to shrink the cancer, relieve symptoms, and help you feel more comfortable.

Why you might have radiotherapy

Doctors don't often use radiotherapy for advanced pancreatic cancer but for some people it might shrink the cancer and reduce symptoms like pain.

If you had radiotherapy to your abdomen when you were first treated, more radiotherapy to this area may not be an option for you. But you can have radiotherapy to another part of your body (such as the lung) if your cancer has spread.

You may just have one radiotherapy session or you might have a few. Your doctor will decide and discuss with you how many sessions you need.

You might have a type of exteranl radiotherapy called stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT). Your doctor might call it Cyberknife. 

Planning radiotherapy

Before you begin your treatment, the radiotherapy team carefully plan your external beam radiotherapy. This means working out how much radiation you need to treat the cancer and exactly where you need it. 

Your planning appointment may take from 15 minutes up to a couple of hours.

You have a planning CT scan in the radiotherapy department. The scan shows the cancer and the area around it. You might also have other types of scans or x-rays so that your treatment team can plan your radiotherapy.

Photo of a CT scanner

The radiotherapy room

Radiotherapy machines are very big. Some are fixed in one position but others rotate around your body.  

Before you start your course of treatment your radiographers explain what you'll see and hear. In some departments the treatment rooms have docks for you to plug in music players. So you can listen to your own music.

Photo of a linear accelerator

Before each treatment session

The radiographers help you to get onto the treatment couch. You might need to raise your arms over your head.

The radiographers line up the radiotherapy machine using the marks on your body. Once you are in the right position, they leave the room.

During the treatment

You need to lie very still. The machine makes whirring and beeping sounds. You can't feel the radiotherapy when you have the treatment. 

Your radiographers can see you and hear you on a CCTV screen in the next room. They can talk to you over an intercom and might ask you to hold your breath or take shallow breaths at times. They will ask you to raise your hand if you need anything but it is important to stay as still as possible. 

You won't be radioactive

External radiotherapy doesn't make you radioactive. It's safe to be with other people throughout your course of treatment, including pregnant women and children.

Travelling to radiotherapy appointments

Tell the radiotherapy department staff if you prefer treatment at a particular time of day. They can try to arrange this.

Car parking can be difficult at hospitals.

It’s worth asking the radiotherapy unit staff:

  • if they can give you a hospital parking permit
  • about discounted parking rates
  • where you can get help with travel fares
  • for tips on free places to park nearby

If you have no other way to get to the hospital, the radiotherapy staff might be able to arrange transport for you. But it might not always be at convenient times. Some hospitals have their own drivers or can arrange ambulances. Some charities offer hospital transport.

Side effects

Radiotherapy treatment can make you feel very tired. You may need to rest more than usual but gentle exercise can raise your energy levels.

You might also feel sick or have diarrhoea. Let your doctor or nurse know if you have this. They can give you medicines to help.

Your skin might become red or darker in the treatment area. Your nurse can give you creams to soothe it. The hair in that area might also fall out. 

These effects usually get better within a few weeks of finishing treatment. Tell your nurse, doctor or radiographer if you have any problems so that they can help you.

Last reviewed: 
10 Oct 2017
  • Cancer of the Pancreas: European Society Medical Oncology Clinical Practice Guidelines
    M Ducreux and others
    Annals of Oncology, 2015, 26 (suppl 5): v56-v68

  • Stereotactic body radiotherapy for unresected pancreatic cancer: A nationwide review

    S De Gues and others (2017) 

    Cancer Jul 14. doi: 10.1002/cncr.30856

  • Role of Stereotactic Body Radiotherapy in the Treatment of Elderly and Poor Performance Status Patients With Pancreatic Cancer

    Rosati, L and Herman, J (2017) 

    Journal of oncology practice Mar;13(3):157-166

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