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In some cases, radiation therapy is an option for addressing pancreatic cancer, a complex malignancy that can be challenging to treat. Because each patient is unique, a physician will evaluate many factors to determine whether radiation therapy should be considered. Although it is often used to treat exocrine pancreatic tumors, it is typically not used to treat pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors. In the latter situation, however, it may be helpful for pain management if the cancer has metastasized to bone.

How is radiation therapy used to treat pancreatic cancer?

Radiation therapy can be used to address a pancreatic tumor in several ways:

As a standalone treatment

If a pancreatic tumor is unresectable (cannot be surgically removed) and the patient is not a candidate for chemotherapy, radiation therapy may be administered on its own. In that scenario, the goal of treatment may be to prevent tumor growth, reduce the pain associated with the tumor or control bleeding caused by pancreatic cancer that has spread to the stomach or bowel.

In combination with chemotherapy

Certain chemotherapy drugs can be used as radiosensitizers to make tumor cells more sensitive to radiation therapy. As such, those pharmaceutical agents may be administered before radiation therapy to enhance its effects and accelerate the resulting DNA damage to pancreatic cancer cells.

Before or after surgery

Radiation therapy may be administered before surgery to shrink a tumor and make it easier (or possible) to remove. It may also be administered after a pancreatic tumor has been surgically removed to target and destroy residual cancer cells and help prevent a recurrence.

What types of radiation therapy can be used to treat pancreatic cancer?

External beam radiation therapy (EBRT) is the most common form of radiation therapy used to address pancreatic cancer. EBRT involves the use of an external machine (linear accelerator), which produces high-energy waves and directs them through the patient’s skin to a tumor site. In addition to standard EBRT, other types of EBRT include:

Stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT)

A highly precise and intense form of radiation therapy, SBRT may be considered for an otherwise healthy patient who has a small pancreatic tumor that has not spread beyond the pancreas. The treatment, which involves the delivery of narrow beams of high-dose radiation to a well-defined tumor, is usually administered over the course of five days. As compared to SBRT, standard EBRT involves a wider beam of lower-dose radiation administered over a longer period of time (typically five to six weeks).

While receiving SBRT, the patient must remain completely still to minimize the radiation exposure to healthy tissues and maximize the effectiveness of the treatment. Because a pancreatic tumor may shift as the patient breathes, SBRT may involve the use of special techniques or equipment to track the movement of the tumor and activate the radiation beam only when the tumor is in a certain position. Toward that end, small metallic “markers” may be endoscopically implanted near the tumor before SBRT begins. The patient may also be asked to hold his or her breath for a few seconds at a time or outfitted with a special device that can be worn to keep his or her body still during SBRT.

MRI-guided adaptive radiation therapy (MRI-linac)

Designed to achieve heightened precision in the delivery of EBRT, MRI-linac technology combines magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) with a linear accelerator in a single, powerful device. Guided by high-definition images produced in real time, the linear accelerator tracks the movement of the tumor and continually adjusts the radiation beam as needed. By facilitating simultaneous tumor tracking and treatment delivery, MRI-linac delivers highly accurate radiation therapy.

The latest breakthroughs in radiation therapy for pancreatic cancer

Moffitt Cancer Center offers both traditional and cutting-edge treatment options for pancreatic cancer, including radiation therapy. The multispecialty team in our Gastrointestinal Oncology Program includes oncologists who specialize in treating pancreatic cancer and are experienced in utilizing highly advanced therapies to their highest potential. What’s more, as Florida’s top cancer hospital, Moffitt has turned the traditional patient care model on its head. Our goal is to help our patients begin treatment right away so they can achieve the best possible outcome and quality of life.

At Moffitt, our patients have access to the latest radiation therapy options, including SBRT and MRI-linac. We also offer longer-course radiation therapy administered through innovative techniques, such as three-dimensional conformal radiation therapy (3D CRT), intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) and image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT). Our Radiation Oncology Program is accredited by the American College of Radiology, a prestigious distinction held by only a select few cancer centers across the nation.

If you would like more information about how radiation therapy is used for treating pancreatic cancer, you can rapidly connect with a specialist at Moffitt by calling 1-888-663-3488 or completing our new patient registration form online.