Proton therapy is a type of radiation that targets cancer cells more precisely, which may prolong a person’s life. However, proton therapy is new, and pancreatic cancer has a low survival rate, so research is limited on its specific benefits.

Pancreatic cancer has a very low survival rate of 5–15% at 5 years. This is because doctors typically diagnose this cancer in a later stage when surgery is less likely to be effective.

Preliminary research suggests proton therapy could increase the length of survival when surgery is not possible. However, overall death rates remain high. Proton therapy may also produce fewer radiation-related complications.

This article explains what proton therapy is and how it works for pancreatic cancer. It also details the benefits and risks of the treatment.

proton therapyShare on Pinterest
Reportage at the Rinecker Proton Therapy Center in Munich, Germany. The center has the latest equipment for proton therapy treatment. BSIP/Getty Images

Traditional radiation uses photons from X-rays to target and kill cancer cells. It can also damage healthy cells. This may cause a wide range of side effects, including a higher risk of developing other cancers.

Protons are subatomic particles that also produce radiation. Proton therapy uses radiation from protons to kill cancer cells. It is a newer treatment only available in specialized cancer treatment centers.

Preliminary research suggests proton therapy may produce fewer side effects than traditional radiation. This could increase the likelihood of a person tolerating the full course of treatment and reduce the risks inherent in treatment.

In a 2020 study of people with locally advanced cancers, researchers assessed the 90-day adverse effects of proton therapy as compared to traditional radiation. They found that proton therapy correlated with fewer side effects but did not prolong participants’ lives. The study included a variety of different cancer types.

Overall, 12% in the proton group experienced a severe side effect requiring hospitalization, compared to 28% in the standard radiation group.

Learn more about proton therapy.

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is cancer of the pancreas, a vital digestive organ. It begins in the pancreatic duct cells, so doctors call it pancreatic ductal carcinoma.

Pancreatic cancer is extremely difficult to detect in the early stages. Therefore, most people receive a diagnosis once it has metastasized, or spread. This makes it one of the leading causes of cancer deaths, regardless of treatment.

Therefore, treatment for pancreatic cancer primarily focuses on prolonging a person’s life and reducing pain rather than curing it.

Learn more about pancreatic cancer.

Proton therapy uses radiation, a type of energy, to damage genetic material in cancer cells.

Traditional radiation damages not just cancer cells but also nearby cells. Preliminary research suggests that proton therapy may be less damaging.

According to the National Association for Proton Therapy, the Bragg Peak is a unique characteristic of protons. It causes the protons to deposit most of their energy in tumor cells rather than continuing to spread the harmful radiation throughout the body.

This should reduce the severity and frequency of radiation side effects. Preliminary research suggests that proton therapy may indeed have a lower risk of side effects.

In people with pancreatic cancer, this could improve their quality of life and reduce complications.


The stages of proton therapy for pancreatic cancer vary depending on the stage of cancer a person has and the goals of treatment. This is a new treatment, and research is ongoing into the best way to administer it.

In general, if it is possible to remove all or a portion of the cancer, a person will have surgery first. Then they will have proton therapy for several weeks after surgery. However, in some cases, a doctor might recommend proton therapy first to shrink the tumor, then surgery to remove the remaining cancer.

Some, but not all, research on proton therapy suggests that it could prolong a person’s life, either on its own or as part of a therapeutic regimen that includes surgery.

A 2022 review reports on several studies that suggest proton therapy might increase a person’s life by several months, especially when used alongside other treatments, including surgery. However, not all studies in the review arrived at this conclusion, and some found no benefits or negative survival benefits associated with photons.

A review from 2020 notes that several studies suggest proton therapy may produce fewer side effects, even when it involves a higher dose of radiation. However, these studies were small, so more research is necessary.

Scientists cannot yet make conclusive statements about proton therapy’s benefits. More research is necessary.

People interested in proton therapy should discuss the risks and benefits and ask an oncologist for guidance about treatment versus palliative care and hospice.

As proton therapy is new, researchers have not identified all of its risks, including those that are long term. However, as survival rates are low with pancreatic cancer, the short-term benefits and risks may be more important.

Most data suggest that the risks of proton therapy are similar to other forms of radiation and include side effects such as:

  • infections
  • pain
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea

However, the rate at which people experience these side effects may be lower with proton therapy. Most studies have been small but have found a decrease in side effects with proton therapy, though not all studies support this claim.

Proton therapy is a promising new form of radiation. It may reduce the risk and severity of side effects that people experience with pancreatic cancer treatment. As proton therapy decreases cellular damage, it may also prolong a person’s life. However, research into this technology is new, and the studies so far have been small.

People can discuss the risks and benefits of proton therapy with an oncologist.