by Carson-DeWitt R

Radiation Therapy for Pancreatic Cancer

Radiation therapy is the use of penetrating beams of high-energy waves or streams of particles called radiation to treat disease. Radiation therapy destroys the ability of cancer cells to grow and divide.
This treatment may be used for pancreatic cancer. It is usually combined with other methods, such as surgery and/or chemotherapy. Radiation therapy may be used before surgery. Once surgery is performed, radiation has to be delayed so that it does not interfere with wound healing.
Radiation plus chemotherapy may be used when pancreatic cancer is inoperable. Radiation therapy alone may also help relieve abdominal and back pain symptoms associated with pancreatic cancer.

Types of Radiation Therapy Used for Pancreatic Cancer

External radiation therapy is the type most often used to treat pancreatic cancer. With this form of radiation, rays are directed at the tumor from outside the body. Treatments are usually given 5 days a week, for about 5 minutes per session, over the course of weeks or months.
Intraoperative electron beam radiation therapy can be given while the abdomen is opened during surgery. In this case, after as much of the tumor as possible is removed, a large dose of radiation is given directly to the pancreas. This method of radiation may be followed by a course of external radiation therapy.
Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer often progresses relentlessly, despite efforts at treatment. The effectiveness of radiation therapy at prolonging life or providing a cure is dependent on the stage of the disease at diagnosis.
Getting a combination of treatment seems to be more effective at prolonging life for a few months, compared to getting 1 type of treatment.
Side Effects and Possible Complications
Radiation therapy to the pancreas may cause:
  • Dry, red, irritated, and/or sunburned skin
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Fatigue
  • Low blood counts
Treatments are available to help manage these side effects. Sometimes adjustments to treatment doses may also be possible. The earlier side effects are addressed, the more likely they will be controlled with a minimum of discomfort.


Cruz MD, Young AP, et al. Diagnosis and management of pancreatic cancer. Am Fam Physician. 2014;89(8):626-632.
Lohr JM. Medical treatment of pancreatic cancer. Expert Rev Anticancer Ther. 2007;7(4):533-544.
Pancreatic cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: Accessed October 5, 2015.
Pancreatic cancer. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated February 23, 2015. Accessed October 5, 2015.
Pancreatic cancer. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: Updated July 2014. Accessed October 5, 2015.
Yip D, Karapetis C, et al. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy for inoperable advanced pancreatic cancer. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2006;3:CD002093.

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