Chemotherapy for gallbladder cancer

Chemotherapy uses anticancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. Most people with gallbladder cancer have chemotherapy. Your healthcare team will consider your personal needs to plan the drugs, doses and schedules of chemotherapy. You may also receive other treatments.

Chemotherapy is sometimes combined with radiation therapy to treat gallbladder cancer. This is called chemoradiation. The 2 treatments are given during the same time period.

We don’t know how effective chemotherapy is in treating gallbladder cancer or helping people live longer. Gallbladder cancer is rare, so it’s hard to find out how effective this treatment is.

Chemotherapy is given for different reasons. You may have chemotherapy or chemoradiation to:

  • destroy cancer cells in the body
  • destroy cancer cells left behind after surgery and reduce the risk that the cancer will come back (recur) (called adjuvant chemotherapy)
  • relieve pain or control the symptoms of advanced gallbladder cancer (called palliative chemotherapy)
  • make radiation therapy more effective
  • treat gallbladder cancer that comes back after treatment

Chemotherapy is usually a systemic therapy. This means that the drugs travel through the bloodstream to reach and destroy cancer cells all over the body, including those that may have broken away from the primary tumour in the gallbladder.

Chemotherapy drugs used for gallbladder cancer

Chemotherapy drugs may be used alone or in combination. The most common drugs used to treat gallbladder cancer are:

  • 5-fluorouracil (Adrucil, 5-FU)
  • gemcitabine (Gemzar)
  • cisplatin (Platinol AQ)
  • capecitabine (Xeloda)

The most common chemotherapy combinations used to treat gallbladder cancer are:

  • 5-fluorouracil and cisplatin
  • gemcitabine and cisplatin
  • gemcitabine and 5-fluorouracil
  • gemcitabine and capecitabine

Drugs, doses and schedules vary from person to person.

Since most chemotherapy drugs have not been found to be very effective against gallbladder cancer, researchers continue to look for more effective drugs for this rare type of cancer.

Side effects

Side effects can happen with any type of treatment for gallbladder cancer, but everyone’s experience is different. Some people have many side effects. Other people have few or none at all.

Chemotherapy may cause side effects because it can damage healthy cells as it kills cancer cells. If you develop side effects, they can happen any time during, immediately after or a few days or weeks after chemotherapy. Sometimes late side effects develop months or years after chemotherapy. Most side effects go away on their own or can be treated, but some side effects may last a long time or become permanent.

Side effects of chemotherapy will depend mainly on the type of drug, the dose, how it’s given and your overall health. Some common side effects of chemotherapy drugs used for gallbladder cancer are:

Tell your healthcare team if you have these side effects or others you think might be from chemotherapy. The sooner you tell them of any problems, the sooner they can suggest ways to help you deal with them.

Information about specific cancer drugs

Details on specific drugs change regularly. Find out more about sources of drug information and where to get details on specific drugs.

Questions to ask about chemotherapy

Find out more about chemotherapy and side effects of chemotherapy. To make the decisions that are right for you, ask your healthcare team questions about chemotherapy.

Expert review and references

  • Cancer Care Ontario. Drug Formulary. Toronto, ON: Cancer Care Ontario;
  • Lillemoe, K. D., Schulick, R. D., Kennedy, A. S., et al . Cancers of the Biliary Tree: Clinical Management. Kelsen, D. P., Daly, J. M., Kern, S. E., Levin, B., Tepper, J. E., & Van Cutsem, E. (eds.). Principles and Practice of Gastrointestinal Oncology. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2008: 37:493-510.
  • Patel,T. and Borad, M.J. . Cancer of the biliary tree. DeVita VT Jr, Lawrence TS, & Rosenberg SA. Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 10th ed. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2015: 53:715-733.
  • Siegel, A.B., Sheynzon,V., and Samstein, B. . Uncommon Hepatobiliary tumors. Raghavan, E., Blanke, C.D., Johnson, D. H., et al. (Eds.). Textbook of Uncommon Cancer. 4th ed. Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons; 2012: 31:441-452.