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What is radiotherapy and how does it work?

Radiotherapy uses radiation to destroy cancer cells. Radiotherapy for pancreatic cancer is usually delivered by a machine called a linear accelerator. This directs beams of radiation, from outside the body, at the cancer, destroying the cancer cells.

Radiotherapy may also damage the normal cells around the cancer such as in the stomach, bowel, liver, kidneys, spinal cord and parts of the pancreas where there isn’t cancer. This may cause side effects. The normal cells can usually repair themselves, so side effects normally improve after treatment stops.

Radiotherapy for locally advanced pancreatic cancer

Locally advanced pancreatic cancer is cancer that has spread to structures around the pancreas, such as large blood vessels.

If you have locally advanced cancer, you may be offered radiotherapy together with chemotherapy. This is known as chemoradiotherapy. The chemotherapy drugs may make the cancer cells more sensitive to the radiotherapy, making it more effective. Chemoradiotherapy may help control the cancer and slow down its growth.

More rarely, you may have radiotherapy or chemoradiotherapy, followed by surgery. The aim is to improve the chances of controlling the cancer or successfully removing it with surgery. This treatment may shrink the tumour enough to make surgery possible for only a few people.

Radiotherapy for borderline resectable pancreatic cancer 

Chemoradiotherapy, or more rarely, radiotherapy on its own may be suitable for some people with borderline resectable pancreatic cancer. Borderline resectable cancer is cancer that has grown very close to the major blood vessels near the pancreas. It may be possible to remove the cancer, but it depends which blood vessels are affected and how far the cancer has grown. Chemoradiotherapy or radiotherapy aims to improve the chances of controlling the cancer or successfully removing it with surgery.

Radiotherapy for advanced pancreatic cancer

If you have cancer that has spread to other parts of the body (advanced or metastatic cancer), the cancer may cause pain by pressing on other organs or nerves nearby. You may be able to have radiotherapy to help control the pain. This is called palliative radiotherapy. The radiotherapy may shrink the tumour, which can help to relieve the pain.

Palliative radiotherapy might also be helpful if the cancer has spread to other areas of the body such as the lungs or the liver.

Read more about treatments to manage pain

What are the advantages and disadvantages of radiotherapy?

Types of radiotherapy

Clinical trials for radiotherapy

How will I have radiotherapy?

Side effects of radiotherapy

Looking after yourself during radiotherapy

Check-ups after radiotherapy

Published July 2017

To be reviewed July 2019

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