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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 do not 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 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 tumours 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 do not 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 cannot 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.

If you have radiotherapy, your radiotherapy doctor (clinical oncologist) will plan your treatment very carefully. They will want to kill the maximum number of cancer cells but cause as little damage to healthy cells as possible. 

 

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 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, and may reduce the risk of cancer coming back. You are most likely to have this 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 treatment

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

 

Planning your treatment

Your specialist will plan your treatment very carefully. At your first hospital visit, you have a planning CT scan. The doctor uses this to work out where to give your treatment to kill the most cancer cells and miss as much healthy body tissue as possible. You may have a pinprick tattoo made on your skin during the planning session. Your radiographer will use this to line up the radiotherapy machine every day when you have your treatment. You may have more marks made with felt pen. Try not to wash them off. They may wear off a bit, but your radiographer can renew them if necessary.

 

Having treatment

The actual treatment only takes a few minutes. The radiographer will help you into position on the couch and make sure you are comfortable. You will be left alone for the minute or two the machine is switched on. But the staff will be able to hear you through an intercom, so call if you need them. The treatment does not hurt. In fact, you will not be able to feel it at all. You must lie very still for the few minutes it takes to treat you.

Having external radiotherapy does not make you radioactive. It is perfectly safe to be with other people, including children, throughout your treatment course.

 

Side effects of radiotherapy

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

All these side effects usually get better within a few weeks of finishing your treatment. You can have medicine 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. There is detailed information about the side effects of radiotherapy to the abdomen in the main radiotherapy section.

 

More radiotherapy information

Look at the main radiotherapy section for more 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.

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Updated: 1 June 2014