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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

Radiotherapy might be used to:

  • shrink the cancer if it has not spread to other parts of the body, or
  • relieve symptoms such as pain if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body 

If you had radiotherapy to your tummy area (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 several sessions, usually on different days over several weeks. Your doctor will decide and discuss with you how many sessions you need.

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

Planning radiotherapy

Before you begin treatment, your radiotherapy team carefully plan your 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 usually have a planning CT scan in the radiotherapy department.

The scan shows the cancer and the area around it. You might have other types of scans or x-rays to help your treatment team plan your radiotherapy. The plan they create is just for you.

Photo of a CT scanner

The radiotherapy room

Radiotherapy machines are very big. They rotate around you to give you your treatment. The machine doesn't touch you at any point.

Before you start your course of treatment your therapy radiographers Open a glossary item explain what you will see and hear. In some departments the treatment rooms have docks for you to plug in your music player. 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 on your back. Your radiographers might take images (x-rays or scans) before your treatment to make sure that you're in the right position. The machine makes whirring and beeping sounds. You won’t feel anything when you have the treatment.

Your radiographers can see 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. You can also talk to them through the intercom or raise your hand if you need to stop or if you're uncomfortable.

You won't be radioactive

This type of radiotherapy won't make you radioactive. It's safe to be around other people, including pregnant women and children.

Travelling to radiotherapy appointments

Radiotherapy doesn’t take long each time, but it might mean that you need to go to the hospital most days for a few weeks. Tell the radiotherapy department 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 hospital transport for you. But it might not always be at convenient times. To see if you're eligible they usually work it out based on your earnings or income.

Some hospitals have their own drivers or can arrange ambulances. Some charities offer help with transport.

Side effects

Radiotherapy 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. Any hair in that area might also fall out. 

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

Last reviewed: 
03 Oct 2019
  • Pancreatic cancer in adults: diagnosis and management
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), February 2018

  • Cancer of the Pancreas: European Society Medical Oncology Clinical Practice Guidelines
    M Ducreux and others
    Annals of Oncology, 2015, Volume 26, Supplement 5, v56 - v68

  • Stereotactic body radiotherapy for unresected pancreatic cancer: A nationwide review
    S De Gues and others 
    Cancer, 2017. Volume 123, Issue 21, Pages 4158 - 4167

  • Role of Stereotactic Body Radiotherapy in the Treatment of Elderly and Poor Performance Status Patients With Pancreatic Cancer
    L Rosati and J Herman (2017) 
    Journal of Oncology Practice, 2017. Volume 13, Issue 3, Pages157-166