Radiation therapy for pancreatic cancer

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays or particles to destroy cancer cells. It is sometimes used to treat pancreatic cancer. Your healthcare team will consider your personal needs to plan the type and amount of radiation, and when and how it is given. You may also receive other treatments.

Radiation therapy is sometimes combined with chemotherapy to treat pancreatic cancer. This is called chemoradiation. The 2 treatments are given during the same time period.

Radiation therapy is given for different reasons. You may have radiation therapy or chemoradiation to:

  • destroy the cancer cells in the body
  • shrink a tumour before other treatments such as surgery (called neoadjuvant therapy)
  • destroy cancer cells left behind after surgery or chemotherapy to reduce the risk that the cancer will come back (recur) (called adjuvant therapy)
  • relieve pain or control the symptoms of advanced pancreatic cancer (called palliative therapy)

The following types of radiation therapy are most commonly used to treat pancreatic cancer.

External beam radiation therapy

During external beam radiation therapy, a machine directs radiation through the skin to the tumour and some of the tissue around it. Radiation therapy for pancreatic cancer often involves daily treatments for 5 to 6 weeks.

Sometimes radiation therapy may be given as shorter treatments made up of higher doses of radiation. Treatment may be given over as few as 5 days. This is called stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT).

Side effects

Side effects can happen with any type of treatment for pancreatic cancer, but everyone’s experience is different. Some people have many side effects. Other people have few or none at all.

During radiation therapy, the healthcare team protects healthy cells in the treatment area as much as possible. But damage to healthy cells can happen and may cause side effects. If you develop side effects, they can happen any time during, immediately after or a few days or weeks after radiation therapy. Sometimes late side effects develop months or years after radiation therapy. Most side effects go away on their own or can be treated, but some side effects may last a long time or become permanent.

Side effects of radiation therapy will depend mainly on the size of the area being treated, the specific area or organs being treated, the total dose of radiation and the treatment schedule. Some common side effects of radiation therapy used for pancreatic cancer are:

Tell your healthcare team if you have these side effects or others you think might be from radiation therapy. The sooner you tell them of any problems, the sooner they can suggest ways to help you deal with them.

Questions to ask about radiation therapy

Find out more about radiation therapy and side effects of radiation therapy. To make the decisions that are right for you, ask your healthcare team questions about radiation therapy.

Expert review and references

  • Alberta Health Services. Adenocarcinoma of the Pancreas Clinical Practice Guideline [GI-006]. Alberta Health Services; 2015.
  • American Cancer Society. Pancreatic Cancer. 2016.
  • Dragovich, T. Pancreatic Cancer Treatment and Management. 2016: http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/280605-treatment#showall.
  • Dragovich, T. Pancreatic Cancer Guidelines. 2016: http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/280605-treatment#showall.
  • National Cancer Institute. Pancreatic Cancer Treatment (PDQ®) Health Professional Version. 2016.
  • National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Pancreatic Adenocarcinoma (Version 2.2016).
  • Wicklin Gillespie T . Pancreatic exocrine tumors. Handy, CM & O'Dea D (eds.). Pancreatic and Hepatobiliary Cancers. Oncology Nursing Society; 2013: 2:3-11.
  • Winter JM, Brody JR, Abrams RA, Lewis NL, Yeo CJ . Cancer of the pancreas. DeVita VT Jr, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA. Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 10th ed. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2015: 49: 657-684.