Radiotherapy for pancreatic cancer

Radiotherapy treats cancer by using high-energy x-rays to destroy cancer cells, while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells.

Radiotherapy is not used as often as chemotherapy or surgery to treat pancreatic cancer. You may have radiotherapy alongside chemotherapy or on its own. It works by using high energy rays to destroy cancer cells, whilst leaving your healthy cells as unharmed as possible.

Radiotherapy may be given:

  • after surgery to try to reduce the chance of the cancer coming back (adjuvant). Both neo-adjuvant and adjuvant radiotherapy for cancer of the pancreas are still experimental treatments.
  • in combination with chemotherapy to shrink the cancer and keep it under control for as long as possible (known as chemoradiation)
  • to shrink the tumour and help to relieve symptoms such as pain, particularly if a bone is involved.
  • as part of a clinical trial before surgery to try to shrink the cancer and make it easier to remove (neo-adjuvant).

All radiotherapy is targeted towards the tumour, but using complex computer models the focus of this targeting can be improved (stereotactic radiotherapy), allowing a higher dose to be administered with the same side effects in shorter time. “Cyberknife” is an example of this form of therapy. Whilst there are potential advantages from shorter treatment courses and perhaps fewer side effects, there is no evidence as yet that it is more effective than standard treatments.

Radiotherapy takes place in a radiotherapy department in a hospital. You may have a treatment daily Monday to Friday with a break over the weekend. Each treatment may take between ten and thirty minutes. A course of radiotherapy may take around six weeks.

Other radiotherapy treatment options

Side effects and how to cope

The side effects of radiotherapy are related to the unwanted damage sustained by surrounding tissue. To minimise these unwanted effects, the total dose of radiation is split into up to 20 fractions given, for example, every weekday for 4 weeks. The dose of radiotherapy used to relieve symptoms such as bone pain is usually lower so you may have a shorter course of treatment and less chance of side effects.