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What to Know About Radiation Treatment for Pancreatic Cancer

This treatment is also called radiotherapy. Its goal is to kill cancer cells. It works by directing radiation at the tumor.

To get this treatment, you see a radiation oncologist. This doctor sets your treatment plan. The plan tells what kind of radiation you will have and how long the treatment will last. Your radiation oncologist or nurse can tell you what to expect during treatment and how you may feel during and after the treatment.

You may have radiation (sometimes along with chemotherapy) at any of these times:

  • Before surgery to help shrink a tumor, making it easier to remove

  • After surgery to help make sure all the cancer cells were destroyed

  • When the cancer has spread, to try to slow its growth and ease symptoms, such as pain or bleeding

Your radiation oncologist may do imaging tests to decide on your treatment. Imaging tests take pictures of the inside of your body. They help show where you need treatment. These may include computed tomography scans (CT scans) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans. You may have the same tests after treatment to see how well it worked.

How you get radiation treatment

The procedure for getting radiation therapy is similar to getting an X-ray—you can’t feel it. These are the two main ways to get it:

  • External radiation. The radiation comes from a machine. It is directed to the tumor from outside of your body. You usually get treatments once a day for five days in a row. You’ll do this for several weeks. Each session takes only a few minutes, although getting you in place for treatment often takes longer. You do not need to stay overnight in a hospital.

  • Internal radiation. This is not a common way to get radiation therapy for pancreatic cancer. This radiation is put inside your body, near or into the tumor. Your doctor may insert the radiation with needles, catheters, wires, or seeds. How often you get treatment depends on how much radiation you will get and how it is implanted.

Potential side effects of radiation treatment

Radiation treatment affects normal cells as well as cancer cells. It may cause side effects. They depend on how much radiation you get and where you get it. Here's a list of the side effects that people with pancreatic cancer sometimes have after radiation:

  • Feeling tired, called fatigue

  • Skin changes over the area being treated

  • Diarrhea or bowel changes

  • Loss of appetite

  • Nausea

These side effects usually occur after several weeks of radiation. Most of them will go away or get better within a few weeks after treatment ends.


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