Radiation therapy for gallbladder cancer

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays or particles to destroy cancer cells. It is sometimes used to treat gallbladder cancer. Your healthcare team will consider your personal needs to plan the type and amount of radiation, and when and how it is given. You may also receive other treatments.

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

Radiation therapy is given for different reasons. You may have radiation therapy or chemoradiation to:

  • destroy the cancer cells in the body
  • destroy cancer cells left behind after surgery or chemotherapy to reduce the risk that the cancer will come back (recur) (called adjuvant therapy)
  • relieve pain or control the symptoms of advanced gallbladder cancer (called palliative therapy)

Only a few research studies show that radiation therapy is effective in treating gallbladder cancer after surgery. It isn’t clear if this therapy helps people live longer. Gallbladder cancer is rare, so it’s hard to find out how effective this treatment is.

External beam radiation therapy

During external beam radiation therapy, a machine directs radiation through the skin to the tumour and some of the tissue around it. Chemotherapy drugs may be given at the same time (called chemoradiation) to make the radiation more effective. 

Gallbladder tumours that have spread too far to be completely removed with surgery may be treated with external beam radiation therapy.

A gallbladder tumour can block the bile duct and cause jaundice or pain if it presses on nerves. Palliative radiation therapy may be used to shrink a gallbladder tumour and help relieve symptoms if it is blocking the gallbladder, bile ducts or the small intestine.

Radiation therapy may also be used after surgery in the area where the gallbladder was removed.

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.

During radiation therapy, the healthcare team protects healthy cells in the treatment area as much as possible. But damage to healthy cells can happen and may cause side effects. If you develop side effects they can happen any time during, immediately after or a few days or weeks after radiation therapy. Sometimes late side effects develop months or years after radiation therapy. 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 radiation therapy will depend mainly on the size of the area being treated, the specific area or organs being treated, the total dose of radiation and the treatment schedule. Some common side effects of radiation therapy used for gallbladder cancer are:

Indigestion or an upset stomach can occur when the lining of the stomach becomes irritated because of radiation therapy aimed at the gallbladder. Avoid foods that cause indigestion or upset the stomach. Antacids or other medicines may be needed. These symptoms often go away after treatment has ended.

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

Questions to ask about radiation therapy

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

Expert review and references

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