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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.

Radiotherapy can 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.

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.

Photo of a CT scanner

The radiotherapy room

Radiotherapy machines are very big and can be daunting at first. Some are fixed in one position, but others rotate around your body.  

Before you start 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 watch and listen to you on a CCTV screen in the next room. They might ask you to hold your breath or take shallow breaths at times. Tell them if you need to move or want the machine to stop.

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.

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.

Radiotherapy can make you tired, especially if you have a long journey. You could ask a family member or friend to drive you to the hospital a couple of times a week. 

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

The radiotherapy staff can usually help to arrange transport for you if you need it. 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.

Information and help

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About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.