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How will I have radiotherapy?

Radiotherapy treatment will vary depending on your situation. You will go to the hospital for each treatment but you won’t need to stay overnight. Each treatment session is called a fraction.

  • You will usually have radiotherapy every day, Monday to Friday. Most treatment courses last three to six weeks (15-30 fractions).
  • If you are having palliative radiotherapy, you will usually have fewer treatment sessions (1, 5 or 10). The overall dose is usually lower which reduces the risk of side effects.

What is chemoradiotherapy?

Chemoradiotherapy is chemotherapy together with radiotherapy. The chemotherapy may make the cancer cells more sensitive to the radiotherapy, making it more effective.  

You will usually have chemotherapy on its own for three to six months to begin with. You will then have a CT scan. If this shows that the cancer has not grown, you will start chemoradiotherapy.

The chemotherapy drug most often used with radiotherapy is capecitabine, which is taken as a tablet. You will have radiotherapy and capecitabine every day from Monday to Friday, for five to six weeks.

Ask your oncologist if chemoradiotherapy is a suitable treatment for you, if it’s available in your specialist centre, or if you could join a clinical trial looking into chemoradiotherapy.

Speak to our specialist nurses on our free Support Line if you have any questions about radiotherapy, chemoradiotherapy, or your treatment options.

Who will treat me?

The team who will plan and deliver your treatment may include these health professionals. 

  • radiologist is a doctor who reads and understands images such as X-rays, MRI and CT scans.
  • Clinical oncologists are doctors who use radiotherapy and chemotherapy to treat and manage cancer. They will be responsible for your treatment.
  • therapy or therapeutic radiographer takes X-rays and scans, and delivers the radiotherapy treatment.
  • Dosimetrists help create a personal radiotherapy plan to make sure the cancer gets the maximum dose of radiotherapy while reducing the dose to the surrounding organs.
  • A medical physicist is a healthcare scientist who helps to work out the doses of radiotherapy and checks all aspects of your treatment plan.

They will work together to make sure the radiotherapy is accurately delivered.

What happens during treatment?

Planning the radiotherapy

Before your radiotherapy starts you will normally have a planning session, which can take up to two hours.

You will have a CT scan, and the radiographers will make tiny permanent dots (tattoos) on your skin. The radiographers will use the dots to help them get you into exactly the right position for each treatment session.

Some people may also have an MRI scan to help with planning. Your doctor will discuss this with you.

You may be asked not to eat for two hours before your planning session, but you might be given some water to drink. To make sure everything is exactly the same for treatment, you will normally have to do this before each treatment session.

After the planning session the radiotherapy team will make a treatment plan for you. This means there will usually be a gap between planning and the start of treatment.

Having treatment

The radiographers will position you on the radiotherapy table (often called a couch) and move the machine around you to different angles to check the measurements. You should try to relax and lie as still as you can.

The radiographers will leave the room but will watch you using cameras. You might feel the couch move as they adjust the position from outside the room. Sometimes you will have a scan before the treatment is delivered. This is to help make sure the radiotherapy is delivered accurately, but it won’t check how well the treatment is working. When the treatment is delivered, the machine will move around you. It may come close to you but will not touch you.

The whole process will take about 30 minutes. The treatment itself isn’t painful and only takes a few minutes.

You can go home as soon as each treatment session is finished. After the treatment, it’s safe to be around other people, including pregnant women and children.

Radiotherapy and chemoradiotherapy can be tiring, so having someone to drive you to hospital can be helpful, especially towards the end of treatment. You may be able to get financial help towards hospital parking or travel costs – ask your medical team.

Read more information

Check-ups after radiotherapy

Who can have radiotherapy?

What are the advantages and disadvantages of radiotherapy?

Types of radiotherapy

Side effects of radiotherapy

Reviewed September 2019

Review date September 2021