Pancreatic Cancer: Radiation Therapy

What is radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation from X-rays or particles to kill cancer cells.

When might radiation be used?

Radiation can be part of the treatment for pancreatic cancer. There are several reasons your healthcare provider may recommend it:

  • To try to shrink a tumor before surgery. This may allow your surgeon to remove all of the cancer. This is called neoadjuvant therapy. When radiation is used before surgery, it’s often used with chemotherapy.

  • To try to kill any cancer cells left after surgery. This is called an adjuvant therapy. When radiation is used after surgery, it’s often used with chemotherapy.

  • To ease symptoms caused by tumors that can't be treated with surgery or that have spread to other organs.

To plan your treatment strategy, you’ll likely meet with a team of cancer specialists. This might include a surgeon, radiation oncologist, and medical oncologist.

What happens during radiation

The most common way to receive radiation for pancreatic cancer is from a machine outside your body that gives off invisible X-ray beams. This is called external radiation. You may need special types of external radiation, such as three-dimensional conformal radiation therapy (3D-CRT) or intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). These are used to try to limit the doses of radiation reaching nearby normal cells. 

A doctor who specializes in cancer and radiation is called a radiation oncologist. This doctor works with you to figure out the kind of radiation you need. He or she also decides the dose and how long you need the treatment.

In most cases, you can receive external radiation on an outpatient basis in a hospital or a clinic. The standard treatment for external radiation is five days a week for several weeks.

Preparing for radiation

Before your first radiation treatment, you’ll have a session to find exactly where on your body the radiation beam needs to be directed. The process is called simulation. This session may take up to two hours. During this session, you may have imaging tests, such as CT scans or MRI scans. This can help your healthcare providers know the exact spot of your tumor to better aim the radiation. Also at this session, you may have body molds made to help keep you from moving during the treatment. Then, you’ll lie still on a table while a therapist uses a machine to define your treatment field. The field is the exact area on your body where the radiation will be aimed. Sometimes it’s called your port. The therapist may mark your skin with tiny dots of semi-permanent ink. This is so that the radiation will be aimed at the same place each time. 

On the days you get radiation

On the days you get radiation, you’ll lie on a table while the machine is placed over you. You may have to wear a hospital gown. It’s a lot like getting an X-ray, only it takes longer. It takes about 15 to 30 minutes to do. You should plan on being there for about an hour, though.

At the start of the session, a radiation therapist may place blocks or special shields to protect parts of your body that don’t need to be exposed to radiation. The therapist then lines up the machine so that radiation is directed to the spot that was marked during the simulation. When you’re ready, the therapist leaves the room and turns the machine on. You may hear whirring or clicking noises, like the sounds of a vacuum cleaner, while it’s is being given. During the session, you’ll be able to talk to the therapist over an intercom. You can’t feel radiation, so it will be painless. You won’t be radioactive afterward.

What to expect after radiation

Because radiation affects normal cells as well as cancer cells, you may have some side effects from it. The side effects from radiation are often limited to the area being treated. Some people have few or no side effects. If you have them, your healthcare provider may change the dose of your radiation or how often you get treatment. Or he or she may hold off treatment until the side effects clear up. Tell your healthcare provider about any side effects you have.

Potential side effects

Common side effects of radiation include:

  • Skin irritation or changes in the areas on your skin that get radiation

  • Nausea or diarrhea

  • Loss of appetite

  • Fatigue

  • Low blood counts

If you have any of these side effects, ask your healthcare provider how to deal with them. Ask how to know when they become serious. These side effects often go away a few weeks after you stop treatment.