Pancreatic Cancer Radiation Oncology Therapy

Radiation oncology — or radiation therapy — is a common part of pancreatic cancer care for most people.

Radiation therapy uses externally applied x-rays to kill cancer cells by damaging their DNA. It's noninvasive and painless.

Radiation oncologists at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center work with their colleagues in surgical and medical oncology to create your personal treatment plan. This includes the right form of radiation oncology at the right time.

Your care team often pairs radiation therapy with medical oncology. We refer to this combination of treatments as chemoradiation or chemoradiotherapy.

Exocrine pancreatic cancers respond well to radiation therapy. Neuroendocrine (islet cell) pancreatic cancers do not.

At times, radiation oncology can help control pain in pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors that have spread to the bone.

When doctors don't think pancreatic cancer surgery is an option, radiation oncology can:

  • Help shrink the tumor.
  • Stop the cancer from spreading.
  • Also help manage pain.

Some people experience side effects from radiation oncology treatment. Chemo along with radiation can enhance side effects.

Your radiation oncologist and the rest of your pancreatic cancer treatment team will try to reduce your side effects.

There are two main types of radiation therapy for pancreatic cancer:

  • External beam radiation therapy: A machine outside the body delivers a beam or multiple beams through the skin to the tumor. This is the most common radiation therapy for pancreatic cancer.
  • Internal radiation therapy: A material implanted in or near the cancer delivers radiation. This is a rare treatment method for pancreatic cancer.

Other radiation therapy options include:

  • Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT): External therapy that delivers focused radiation to the tumor and varies the intensity of the beam through computer control. IMRT allows a higher dose of radiation and minimizes the amount of radiation exposure to tissue near the pancreas.
  • Sterotactic body ration therapy (SBRT): External therapy that uses narrow beams to target small, well-defined tumors to deliver high doses of radiation precisely. This therapy is given in a limited amount of treatments. For safe delivery, the tumor can’t move or the machine needs to be able to adjust to any movement by the tumor. Because of those issues, SBRT is only recommended as part of clinical trials.
  • Proton beam radiation therapy: External beam therapy that uses proton beams instead of electrons for radiation. Protons deposit their energy in a narrow area of the body. Proton beam therapy delivers a higher, more conformed dose of radiation while sparing tissue around the tumor and generally has fewer side effects. Clinical trials are still studying proton beam therapy.

Radiation can be used by itself or paired with other types of treatment, including surgery and chemotherapy:

  • Before surgery, along with chemotherapy, to try to shrink tumors to make them easier to remove completely.
  • After surgery, along with chemotherapy, to kill remaining cancer cells or those that spread elsewhere, to try to prevent the cancer from coming back.
  • As a main treatment along with chemotherapy for patients whose tumors spread beyond the pancreas, making them hard to remove with surgery.
  • As treatment for pain or other symptoms with advanced cancers or for patients who aren’t healthy enough for surgery or other options.

Radiation therapy is a pain-free treatment and is like getting an X-ray, but the radiation is stronger.

While the treatment itself takes only a few minutes, the setup can last longer.

It is often given five days a week over several weeks.

Common side effects from radiation therapy are:

  • Skin changes, including redness, blistering and peeling
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weight loss

Our team at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center will work with you to manage your side effects.

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center is a leader in using state-of-the-art technologies to treat pancreatic cancer. Our radiation oncology program's cutting-edge equipment and techniques help make sure you receive the best possible treatment.

External beam radiation therapy is a term for radiation therapy that uses high-energy x-rays (a linear accelerator machine) to treat tumors. Many radiation oncology treatments for pancreatic cancer rely on a form of this technology.

The team at the specialty Pancreatic Cancer Care and Treatment Program at UPMC includes experts in the following technologies: