Proton therapy for pancreatic cancer refers to a type of radiation therapy that delivers high doses of radiation to cancerous tumors without harming nearby cells and organs, such as your liver or gallbladder.

Pancreatic cancer is the seventh leading cause of death from cancer globally. This type of cancer can spread before any symptoms appear, which may influence what treatments a doctor or specialist recommends.

It’s not widely available yet, but proton therapy may be able to treat pancreatic cancer without causing as many of the side effects associated with other therapies. Doctors also primarily use it in more advanced cases of pancreatic cancer or those that are untreatable with surgery alone.

Learn more about how proton therapy can treat pancreatic cancer, including when doctors recommend it, as well as the potential benefits and downsides.

Proton beam radiotherapy, or “proton therapy,” is a type of high dose radiation treatment. It’s a newer method of cancer treatment that doctors may use to treat advanced pancreatic cancer and other types of cancers, including breast, lung, and prostate cancers.

Unlike traditional radiation therapy which uses high doses of radiation with X-rays or photons, proton therapy relies on radiation derived from protons — subatomic particles that carry positive electrical charges. This approach is also more targeted to the desired treatment area.

Like other types of radiation therapy, proton therapy destroys cancerous tumors by destroying their DNA. Cancer cells then die off over the course of several days or weeks following radiation therapy.

As with radiation therapy, doctors may recommend proton therapy to:

  • slow the growth of pancreatic cancer cells
  • completely destroy tumors
  • treat or stop cancer recurrence

Healthcare professionals also typically combine proton therapy with other cancer therapies, such as chemotherapy or surgery.

A proton therapy session typically takes 30 minutes from start to finish. During your treatment, you will lie down on a table while a machine emits proton beams to specific points on your body.

You may need multiple treatment sessions, depending on how widespread cancerous cells are around your pancreas and surrounding tissues or organs. Depending on your individual pancreatic cancer treatment plan, a doctor may prescribe chemotherapy medications for you to take after proton therapy.

Pancreatic cancer treatment research is ongoing, with radiation therapy being of particular interest.

In theory, proton therapy may be more effective and produce fewer side effects than photon radiation therapy, but there’s still not enough data to support this hypothesis.

According to one 2020 research review, proton therapy may help treat pancreatic cancer tumors that doctors cannot remove with surgery. Proton therapy may also be effective as a localized treatment to target cancerous cells, especially when doctors use it with systemic treatments like chemotherapy.

Research also suggests that chemotherapy has a long-term risk of toxicity, making alternatives such as radiation or proton therapy more appealing. This may be especially true in older adults with pancreatic cancer, who may have a lower tolerance for chemotherapy.

Proton therapy shows promise in pancreatic cancer treatment. But this type of therapy is still controversial due to varied results in clinical trials.

Key takeaway

While proton therapy could mean fewer side effects, there’s not enough evidence to definitively show that the treatment can extend lifespan.

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Research shows that proton therapy may extend survival rates associated with pancreatic cancer. But it’s unlikely for doctors to recommend it as a stand-alone treatment. Current research shows a higher treatment efficacy with combined chemotherapy and radiotherapy/proton therapy.

In a 2019 study, 56% of people who received proton therapy for cancer survived longer than 3 years, while the same was true of 58% of people receiving traditional radiation treatments.

This suggests that the two types of radiation therapies have similar efficacy. And this particular study combined a variety of cancer types — not just pancreatic cancer.

Be sure to discuss the potential benefits and risks of proton therapy with a doctor before undergoing proton therapy for pancreatic cancer.

Below are some of the key advantages and disadvantages of proton therapy to keep in mind as you consider your treatment options.


Perhaps the biggest advantage of proton therapy for pancreatic cancer is that it can help treat large tumors without destroying healthy cells, compared with other treatment options, such as traditional radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

This also means that you may experience fewer side effects from your pancreatic cancer treatment plan if you include proton therapy.


There’s no consensus yet in the current research showing that proton therapy is more effective than other cancer treatments. Proton therapy may result in fewer side effects, but you may still experience some symptoms associated with radiation therapy, such as:

  • fatigue
  • diarrhea
  • nausea

Another downside to proton therapy is the lack of accessibility. Some hospitals offer this treatment, but it’s not available in all cancer treatment centers.

Proton therapy is also typically more expensive than other types of radiation treatments for cancer. Due to the limited data supporting its efficacy, few insurance companies are likely to cover proton therapy.

Doctors usually recommend proton therapy for advanced pancreatic cancer or in situations when surgery alone can’t remove all the cancerous tissue — usually stage 2B to stage 4.

In some cases, doctors may perform proton therapy before, during, or after surgery, and they may combine it with chemotherapy.

More specifically, proton therapy may help in the following situations:

  • Locally advanced pancreatic cancer: This means that the cancer spread involves nearby lymph nodes or your blood vessels.
  • Borderline resectable pancreatic cancer: While fully resectable cancers are treatable with surgery, borderline resectable means that cancer cells grow into nearby tissues, organs, or blood vessels and may not be easily removable through surgery.
  • Metastatic pancreatic cancer: In this situation, the cancer spread involves other organs.
  • Recurrent pancreatic cancer: This happens when cancer returns after initial treatments, such as surgery. It may return to the pancreas, which is the originating site, or to another part of your body.

If you have pancreatic cancer, talk with a doctor about the most viable treatment options for your stage of cancer, age, and overall health. Research supporting proton therapy is still emerging, but it may be worth asking about this treatment option.

You may also consider enrolling in a clinical trial. Participation helps advance cancer treatment research and often gives you access to free treatments. Check out for the latest clinical trials related to pancreatic cancer treatments, including proton therapy treatments.

Pancreatic cancer had an 11% overall 5-year relative survival rate between 2011 and 2017, but treatments like proton therapy are constantly evolving to help improve your chances of living a longer life with this type of cancer.

Talk with a doctor about enrolling in clinical trials if proton therapy is currently not available to you but you’re still interested in this treatment for pancreatic cancer. This can help you access proton therapy at little to no cost.