Pancreatic Cancer

Side effects of radiotherapy and chemoradiotherapy

Radiotherapy can destroy cancer cells, but it can also affect some of the surrounding normal cells. Radiotherapy for pancreatic cancer affects people in different ways. Some people have very few side effects while others may experience effects such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and tiredness. Skin reactions may also occur. Most of those who had had radiotherapy felt fine at first but then gradually developed side effects such as extreme tiredness. Elaine had surgery followed by radiotherapy. She felt very tired towards the end of the course of radiotherapy. She also felt a bit sick but decided not to take antiemetics (see ‘Radiotherapy and chemoradiotherapy’).
The others we interviewed had all had chemotherapy at the same time as radiotherapy, so some of the side effects they mentioned may have been due to either treatment. Richard (Interview 22) felt tired and sick, which he attributed to the radiotherapy, but these side effects could have been partly due to chemotherapy.
Doctors may prescribe medicines to relieve nausea and vomiting. Some people tried several different antiemetic drugs until they found one that worked for them. Peter (Interview 13) took a prescribed medicine but decided that over-the-counter medicines worked better for him. He also had diarrhoea.
Alison had chemoradiotherapy in 2008. She developed gastritis and an inflamed oesophagus, which was most likely due to the radiotherapy. Her doctor gave her some medicine to treat the symptoms. When interviewed two years later Alison said that the gastritis sometimes recurs, particularly after eating something spicy.
Some people develop a skin reaction within the radiotherapy area. If this occurs it normally happens after 3–4 weeks. People are advised not to use any cream or dressings unless the specialist or the radiographer has prescribed or recommended it. When treated for pancreatic cancer Michael’s skin became a bit red but he said it wasn’t serious. Anthony’s wife Martine had developed a rash after radiotherapy. Radiotherapy skin reactions are normal and are most common at the end of treatment.

Most side effects of radiotherapy disappear gradually after the course of treatment is over. For some people, however, they continue for weeks or even longer. Some side effects, e.g. scarring around the bowel or bowel ulceration, may follow months or years after radiotherapy.

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Last reviewed September 2018.
Last updated June 2015.


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