Gallbladder cancer is often treatable in its early stages. Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy are common treatment options.

Gallbladder cancer is a rare form of cancer that affects the gallbladder — a small, pear-shaped organ located just beneath the liver — and the bile ducts attached to the gallbladder.

Doctors only discover around 1 in 5 gallbladder cancers before they spread beyond this initial site. Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy may be effective in these cases. However, advanced gallbladder cancers are challenging to treat, and the outlook is often poor.

Learn more about the outlook for gallbladder cancer.

This article provides an overview of the treatment options for gallbladder cancer, the possible side effects associated with these treatments, and answers some frequently asked questions about gallbladder cancer.

Close up of three  intravenous fluid bags hanging in a clinical settingShare on Pinterest
Zvalalto/Getty Images

Gallbladder removal, or cholecystectomy, can be an effective treatment option in early stage gallbladder cancer. This may involve removing the gallbladder, surrounding tissues, and nearby lymph nodes.

Additional surgeries may relieve symptoms without treating cancer in more advanced cancer stages. These may involve inserting catheters, stents, or bypass structures to treat blockages in bile ducts from the gallbladder.

Risks and benefits

Medical professionals will ensure patients are suitable candidates for a cholecystectomy before recommending it. However, no procedure is without risks.

Potential risks and complications may include:

The only cure for early stage gallbladder cancers is surgery.

Radiation or external beam radiation therapy (EBRT) uses high energy radiation to shrink and destroy cancer cells. Doctors may recommend radiation therapy as a postoperative treatment following cholecystectomy when cancer cells remain.

Additionally, a doctor may recommend radiation therapy as an option for patients who cannot undergo surgery.

Side effects

Common side effects of radiation therapy include:

Radiation therapy side effects often appear within the first weeks of treatment and typically improve the further out a person is from the completion of their radiation course.

Chemotherapy is a treatment that uses cancer-killing drugs to help prevent cancer cells from multiplying and spreading.

For patients with gallbladder cancer, doctors use chemotherapy post-operatively to achieve a longer period of remission or treat any residual disease left over after the surgery. Chemotherapy is also viable when surgery is not an option or if the cancer is too advanced.

Common chemotherapy drugs for gallbladder cancer include:

  • capecitabine (Xeloda)
  • 5-fluorouracil
  • oxaliplatin (Eloxatin)
  • cisplatin (Platinol)
  • gemcitabine (Gemzar)

Doctors prescribe chemotherapy in cycles. Each cycle lasts 3–4 weeks, after which a person will have a rest period.

Side effects

Chemotherapy can cause many side effects, including:

Learn more about the side effects of chemotherapy.

Despite the aggressive nature of gallbladder cancer, researchers are developing and studying new therapies to improve the outlook for patients.

Other treatments for gallbladder cancer include:

  • radiation sensitizers
  • targeted therapy
  • immunotherapy

The treatment plan for gallbladder cancer varies among individuals and depends on several factors. Below are frequently asked questions relating to gallbladder cancer treatment.

Can gallbladder cancer be cured?

When doctors detect gallbladder cancer in its early stages, there is a chance that surgery can remove the cancer, curing it. If the cancer is more advanced, it will be more challenging to treat.

A person’s treatment plan will depend on their age, the stage of the cancer, and their overall health.

What is the survival rate of gallbladder cancer?

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), the relative 5-year survival rate for gallbladder cancer across all stages is 20%. This rate varies depending on the stage of the disease and the presence or absence of other factors, such as early detection.

People who receive an early diagnosis when the cancer is localized to the gallbladder have a significantly better survival rate of 69%. However, people who receive delayed treatment and end up with advanced stage gallbladder cancer have a 5-year survival rate of 3%. Approximately 4 in 5 people with gallbladder cancer receive a late diagnosis.

Gallbladder cancer occurs when cancer cells grow in a person’s gallbladder or the bile ducts. Although gallbladder cancer is rare, it can be fatal if left untreated.

Only 1 in 5 cases of gallbladder cancer in the United States are diagnosed early. People who receive an early diagnosis have a better chance of surviving the disease.

Current treatment options for gallbladder cancer include surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.