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Radiotherapy for pancreatic cancer

Men and women discussing pancreatic cancer

This page is about radiotherapy for cancer of the pancreas. Radiotherapy is not used very often to treat pancreatic cancer. Chemotherapy or surgery are more commonly used. You can find the following information

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Radiotherapy for pancreatic cancer

Radiotherapy uses high energy rays to kill cancer cells. Doctors don't often use it to treat pancreatic cancer. But you may have radiotherapy if it isn’t possible to completely remove your pancreatic cancer with surgery. Or you may have it if you are not fit enough to have a long operation. Radiotherapy on its own is very unlikely to cure your cancer. But it may help to shrink it or slow its growth.

Radiotherapy with chemotherapy

Your doctor may suggest radiotherapy with chemotherapy for locally advanced pancreatic cancer. This may help shrink or slow the growth of cancer. The chemotherapy drug helps radiotherapy work better. You may have this as part of a clinical trial as doctors are still looking into the best way of giving this treatment. In a few people, this treatment may shrink the cancer enough to make surgery possible.

In trials, doctors are looking at giving this combination of treatment before surgery for early pancreatic cancer. They hope this treatment will shrink the cancer so that there is a greater chance of removing it all with surgery, and may reduce the risk of cancer coming back.

Radiotherapy to relieve symptoms

You may have radiotherapy if your cancer is causing symptoms such as pain. The treatment can shrink the tumour and relieve pressure which may be causing the pain. It may also help to relieve a blockage (obstruction) in your bowel.
 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the Treating pancreatic cancer section.

 

 

Radiotherapy and pancreatic cancer

Radiotherapy uses high energy rays to kill cancer cells. Doctors don't often use it to treat cancer of the pancreas because radiotherapy to this area can damage healthy cells and cause severe side effects. 

Your doctor may suggest that you have radiotherapy if the cancer can't be removed with surgery or you are not fit enough to have a long operation. In this situation, radiotherapy on its own is very unlikely to cure your cancer. But it can help to shrink it or slow it down in some people.

 

Radiotherapy and chemotherapy

You may have treatment with chemotherapy and radiotherapy (chemoradiation) if you have locally advanced pancreatic cancer. This may help shrink or slow the growth of cancer. The chemotherapy drug helps radiotherapy to work better. You may have this as part of a clinical trial, as doctors are still looking into the best way of giving this treatment. For a few people with locally advanced disease, this treatment may shrink the cancer enough to make surgery possible.

Doctors are also looking into giving this combination of treatment before surgery for early pancreatic cancer (neo adjuvant treatment). They hope this will shrink the cancer so there is a greater chance of removing it all with surgery. This can reduce the risk of the cancer coming back. You are most likely to have this treatment as part of a trial.

 

Radiotherapy to relieve symptoms

You may have radiotherapy if your cancer is causing symptoms such as pain. Radiotherapy can shrink the tumours and relieve pressure which may be causing the pain. If the cancer is pressing on the bowel and causing a blockage, shrinking the cancer can also help to relieve this.

 

Where you have radiotherapy

You have radiotherapy treatment in the hospital radiotherapy department. The number of treatments you have will vary according to whether the radiotherapy is to control symptoms or is given before or after other treatments. 

If the treatment is with chemotherapy, it is usually split up into a number of mini treatments, called fractions. You usually have one radiotherapy treatment a day, from Monday to Friday, with a rest over the weekend. The length of a course of radiotherapy can vary from one week to several weeks.

If the radiotherapy is for symptom control, you may just have one or a few treatments. 

 

Planning your treatment

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 will have a planning CT scan. The scan shows the cancer and the structures around it.

The 360° photo is of a CT scanner. You can use the arrows to look around the room.

You lie on the scanner couch with the treatment area exposed. The radiographers will put some markers on your skin. You need to lie very still. Once you are in position the radiographers move the couch up and through the scanner. The scanner is a doughnut shape. The radiographers leave the room and the scan starts. It takes up to 5 minutes. You won't feel anything. The radiographers watch from the next door room.

Before the planning appointment you may also have other scans, such as MRI scans or PET scans. Your treatment team can feed the other scans into the planning scanner.

Ink marks

Once the treatment team has planned your radiotherapy, they may put ink marks on your skin to make sure they treat exactly the same area every day. They may also make pin point sized tattoo marks in these areas. 

We have information about radiotherapy skin markings.

After your planning session

You may have to wait a few days or up to 2 weeks before you start treatment. During this time the physicists and your radiotherapy doctor decide the final details of your plan. Your doctor will plan the areas that need treatment and outline areas to limit the dose to or avoid completely. They call this contouring. Then the physicists and staff called dosimetrists plan the treatment very precisely using advanced computers.

 

Having radiotherapy

Radiotherapy machines are very big. The machine may be fixed in one position or able to rotate around your body to give treatment from different directions. Before your first treatment your radiographers will explain what you will see and hear. The treatment rooms usually have docks for you to plug in music players. So you can listen to your own music.

You can't feel radiotherapy when you actually have the treatment. It takes anything from 1 minute to several minutes. It is important to lie in the same position each time, so the radiographers may take a little while to get you ready.

A photo of a linear accelerator, which gives radiotherapy

Once you are in the right position the staff leave you alone in the room for a few minutes. They watch you carefully through a window or on a closed circuit television screen. They may ask you to hold your breath or take shallow breaths during the treatment.

Our page about having external radiotherapy has a video about having radiotherapy that you may want to watch.

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

 

Side effects of radiotherapy

Treatment to the area of the pancreas can cause the following side effects

You can use the links above to go to information about managing the side effects. All these effects usually get better within a few weeks of finishing your treatment. You can have medicines to help control sickness and diarrhoea. Do tell your nurse, doctor or radiographer if you have any problems.

Radiotherapy can also cause tiredness for many people. The tiredness increases as you go through your treatment and continues for a few weeks after you have finished treatment. 

You can read detailed information about the side effects of radiotherapy to the abdomen.

 

More radiotherapy information

Look at the main radiotherapy section for general information about this type of treatment including

You can find information about research into new radiotherapy treatments on our page about pancreatic cancer research.

You can phone the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. They will be happy to answer any questions that you have.

Our general organisations page gives details of people who can provide information about radiotherapy. Some organisations can put you in touch with a cancer support group. 

Our cancer and treatments reading list has information about books, leaflets and other resources about radiotherapy treatment.

If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use Cancer Chat, our online forum.

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Updated: 1 October 2014