Radiation therapy uses high energy x-rays to destroy cancer cells. Special tools and dosing will help to kill as much of the cancer as possible while minimizing the effect on nearby healthy tissue. A radiation oncologist will customize the treatment dose for individual needs. Radiation therapy may be given:

  • Before surgery—To shrink the tumor and decrease the amount of tissue that needs to be removed. This may be more common with borderline resectable tumors.
  • After surgery—To kill any remaining cancer cells and decrease risk of return.
  • To help relieve symptoms of metastatic cancer and extend survival time.

For pancreatic cancer, radiation therapy is most often used in combination with chemotherapy (called chemoradiation).

There are different types of radiation therapy, but external beam radiation is used to treat pancreatic cancer. In external beam radiation therapy, radiation is produced by a machine positioned outside the body. Short bursts of x-rays are directed at the cancer.

The radiation oncologist will direct the radiation beam to deliver as much radiation to the tumor as possible with as little damage to healthy tissue as possible. Different machines use different delivery methods depending on what is needed. Types of external beam radiation include:

  • Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT)
  • Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT)

A variety of treatments are available to help manage side effects of radiation therapy, such as dry, irritated skin, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fatigue due to anemia. 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.