Pancreatic Cancer: Radiation Therapy

Memorial Sloan Kettering experts are innovators in using radiation therapy to treat patients with pancreatic cancer. Although in the past it was used primarily to relieve pain and other symptoms of metastatic pancreatic cancer, our doctors helped to establish the effectiveness of radiation therapy to treat people at many different stages of the disease. At Memorial Sloan Kettering, radiation therapy is used:

  • In combination with chemotherapy and surgery to completely eliminate localized tumors and any remaining cancer cells
  • To shrink locally advanced tumors so that surgery can be performed safely
  • To relieve pain and other symptoms of metastatic disease

We use sophisticated tools – including a state-of-the-art linear accelerator and computer-based systems – to deliver powerful doses of radiation directly to tumors with incredible precision. Advances in technology have made it possible to shrink pancreatic tumors while also limiting the radiation dose delivered to nearby tissues. This approach can help to avoid causing side effects that may occur when healthy tissue is damaged.

Our radiation team works together to offer the highest level of safety during every step of your treatment. Medical physicists are present during each radiation procedure to ensure that the correct dose of radiation is delivered precisely where it is needed.

Our team combines advanced imaging with specialized techniques to monitor your progress during and after treatment, and to further enhance the precision of radiation treatment:

  • Because the pancreas can shift during breathing, our radiation therapists use a technique called respiratory gating to deliver radiation only during certain points in your breathing cycle. Real-time CT scans are used during the treatment session to select the optimal position of the tumor
  • A gastroenterologist or an interventional radiologist can embed several small gold markers in the pancreas before radiation therapy begins. These markers appear white on imaging scans, helping the machine to locate tumors with pinpoint accuracy.

Because our radiation oncologists are continually working to advance the field, we also offer patients access to clinical trials of new approaches to radiation therapy. By participating in a clinical trial, you may have access to radiation therapy techniques or combinations of therapies that are not widely available.

Our doctors will work with you and other members of your treatment team to determine the approach, or combination of approaches, that is best for you.

Image-Guided Radiation Therapy

Memorial Sloan Kettering regularly uses a technology called image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT) for the treatment of pancreatic tumors. IGRT uses highly sophisticated computer software and three-dimensional imaging to mold high-dose radiation beams to the contours of each tumor. Using this technique, high doses of radiation can be delivered directly to the tumor while reducing the risk of radiation to other organs. Treatment with IGRT is usually given over 28 treatment sessions.

Stereotactic Body Radiotherapy

Memorial Sloan Kettering’s radiation oncology team is evaluating the use of an ultra-high-dose, highly precise form of radiation therapy called stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT). SBRT uses advanced imaging technologies, combined with a sophisticated computer guidance system, to deliver very high doses of radiation directly to tumors. SBRT is usually given in five or fewer sessions, allowing patients to return to chemotherapy or other treatments.

Palliative Treatment with Conventional External Beam Radiation Therapy

Palliative care is a treatment that is administered with the goal of alleviating the pain and other symptoms that metastatic cancer can cause as it spreads from the pancreas to other parts of the body. Conventional external beam radiation therapy (EBRT), a less intensive form of radiation therapy than IGRT or SBRT, is often an effective palliative treatment for metastatic pancreatic cancer. In conventional EBRT, lower doses of radiation are administered using a machine that aims a pair of radiation beams precisely at the tumor. Palliative radiation treatment can be given over a number of treatment sessions, shrinking tumors and reducing symptoms such as bleeding and compression.