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This section outlines treatments that are the standard of care (the best proven treatments available) for this specific type of cancer. When making treatment plan decisions, patients are also encouraged to consider clinical trials as an option. A clinical trial is a research study to test a new treatment to evaluate whether it is safe, effective, and possibly better than standard treatment. Your doctor can help you review all treatment options.
In cancer care, different types of doctors often work together to create a patient's overall treatment plan that combines different types of treatments. This is called a multidisciplinary team. For gallbladder cancer, the team of doctors may include a gastroenterologist, a surgeon, a medical oncologist, and a radiation oncologist.
Descriptions of the most common treatment options for gallbladder cancer are listed below. Gallbladder cancer may be treated with one or more treatments, including surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy. If detected at an early stage, gallbladder cancer has a much higher chance of being successfully treated. Treatment options and recommendations depend on several factors, including the type and stage of cancer, possible side effects, and the patient's preferences and overall health.
Surgery is the removal of the tumor and surrounding tissue during an operation.
A surgical oncologist is a doctor who specializes in treating cancer using surgery. The following are types of surgery used in the treatment of gallbladder cancer:
Cholecystectomy. Also called a simple cholecystectomy, this procedure involves the removal of the gallbladder. An extended cholecystectomy is the removal of the gallbladder, one inch or more of liver tissue located next to the gallbladder, and all of the lymph nodes in the region.
Radical gallbladder resection. This procedure involves the removal of the gallbladder, a wedge-shaped section of the liver near the gallbladder, the common bile duct, part or all of the ligaments between the liver and intestines, and the lymph nodes around the pancreas and nearby blood vessels.
Palliative surgery. Surgery may sometimes help relieve symptoms caused by gallbladder cancer, even if the tumor cannot be removed. For example, surgery may relieve a blockage of the bile ducts or intestines.
Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy x-rays or other particles to kill cancer cells. A doctor who specializes in giving radiation therapy to treat cancer is called a radiation oncologist. The most common type of radiation treatment for gallbladder cancer is called external-beam radiation therapy, which is radiation therapy given from a machine outside the body. A radiation therapy regimen (schedule) usually consists of a specific number of treatments given over a set period of time.
Radiation therapy may be used before surgery to shrink the size of the tumor or after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells. In some cases, radiation therapy is given during surgery to directly target the area of the tumor and protect healthy organs from the effects of traditional radiation therapy. This procedure is called intra-operative radiation therapy, or IORT.
Side effects of radiation therapy may include fatigue, mild skin reactions, upset stomach, loose bowel movements, and damage to nearby structures such as the liver or intestines. Most side effects go away soon after treatment is finished.
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells, usually by stopping the cancer cells' ability to grow and divide. Systemic chemotherapy is delivered through the bloodstream to reach cancer cells throughout the body. Chemotherapy is given by a medical oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating cancer with medication. A chemotherapy regimen (schedule) usually consists of a specific number of cycles given over a set period of time. A patient may receive one drug at a time or combinations of different drugs at the same time.
Chemotherapy may be given before surgery to shrink the tumor or after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells. It also may be combined with radiation therapy. Chemotherapy can be given by mouth or injection. The drugs that are commonly recommended include gemcitabine (Gemzar), fluorouracil (5-FU), and cisplatin (Platinol). The side effects of chemotherapy depend on the individual and the dose used, but they can include fatigue, risk of infection, nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, and diarrhea. These side effects usually go away once treatment is finished.
The medications used to treat cancer are continually being evaluated. Talking with your doctor is often the best way to learn about the medications prescribed for you, their purpose, and their potential side effects or interactions with other medications.
Cancer and its treatment often cause side effects. In addition to treatment to slow, stop, or eliminate the cancer, an important part of cancer care is relieving a person's symptoms and side effects. This approach is called palliative or supportive care, and it includes supporting the patient with his or her physical, emotional, and social needs.
Palliative care can help a person at any stage of illness. People often receive treatment for the cancer and treatment to ease side effects at the same time. In fact, patients who receive both often have less severe symptoms, better quality of life, and report they are more satisfied with treatment.
Before treatment begins, talk with your health care team about the possible side effects of your specific treatment plan and supportive care options. And during and after treatment, be sure to tell your doctor or another health care team member if you are experiencing a problem, so it is addressed as quickly as possible.
Recurrent gallbladder cancer
A remission is when cancer cannot be detected in the body and there are no symptoms. This may also be called “no evidence of disease” or NED.
A remission can be temporary or permanent. This uncertainty leads to many survivors feeling worried or anxious that the cancer will come back. While many remissions are permanent, it's important to talk with your doctor about the possibility of the cancer returning. Understanding the risk of recurrence and the treatment options may help you feel more prepared if the cancer does return.
If the cancer does return after the original treatment, it is called recurrent cancer. It may come back in the same place (called a local recurrence), nearby (regional recurrence), or in another place (distant recurrence).
When this occurs, a cycle of testing will begin again to learn as much as possible about the recurrence. After testing is done, you and your doctor will talk about your treatment options. Often the treatment plan will include the therapies described above (such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy) but may be used in a different combination or given at a different pace. Your doctor may also suggest clinical trials that are studying new ways to treat this type of recurrent cancer.
People with recurrent cancer often experience emotions such as disbelief or fear. Patients are encouraged to talk with their health care team about these feelings and ask about support services to help them cope.
Metastatic gallbladder cancer
If cancer has spread to another location in the body, it is called metastatic cancer.
Patients with this diagnosis are encouraged to talk with doctors who are experienced in treating this stage of cancer, because there can be different opinions about the best treatment plan.
Your health care team may recommend a treatment plan that includes a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy. Supportive care will also be important to help relieve symptoms and side effects.
Coping with Side Effects
Fear of treatment side effects is common after a diagnosis of cancer, but it may help to know that preventing and controlling side effects is a major focus of your health care team. This is called palliative or supportive care, and it is an important part of the overall treatment plan, regardless of the stage of disease.
Common side effects from each treatment option for gallbladder cancer are described in detail within the Treatment section. Side effects depend on a variety of factors, including the cancer's stage, the length and dosage of treatment(s), and your overall health.
Before treatment begins, talk with your doctor about possible side effects of each type of treatment you will be receiving. Ask which side effects are most likely to happen, when they are likely to occur, and what can be done to prevent or relieve them. And, ask about the level of caregiving you may need during treatment and recovery, as family members and friends often play an important role in the care of a person with gallbladder cancer.
In addition to physical side effects, there may be psychosocial (emotional and social) effects as well. Patients and their families are encouraged to share their feelings with a member of their health care team who can help with coping strategies.
During and after treatment, be sure to tell the health care team about the side effects you experience, even if you feel they are not serious. Sometimes, side effects can last beyond the treatment period, called a long-term side effect. A side effect that occurs months or years after treatment is called a late effect. Treatment of both types of effects is an important part of survivorship care.
After treatment for gallbladder cancer ends, talk with your doctor about developing a follow-up care plan. This plan may include regular physical examinations and/or medical tests to monitor your recovery for the coming months and years. It is necessary to have regular checkups following treatment for gallbladder cancer to watch for possible recurrence. In addition to physical examinations, blood tests and imaging tests (such as CT scans) may be done.
People recovering from gallbladder cancer are encouraged to follow established guidelines for good health, such as maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, eating a balanced diet, and having recommended cancer screening tests. Talk with your doctor to develop a plan that is best for your needs. Moderate physical activity can help rebuild your strength and energy level. Your doctor can help you create an appropriate exercise plan based upon your needs, physical abilities, and fitness level.
Doctors are working to learn more about gallbladder cancer, ways to prevent it, how to best treat it, and how to provide the best care to people diagnosed with this disease. The following areas of research may include new options for patients through clinical trials. Always talk with your doctor about the diagnostic and treatment options best for you.
Immunotherapy. Immunotherapy (also called biologic therapy) is designed to boost the body's natural defenses to fight the cancer. It uses materials made either by the body or in a laboratory to bolster, target, or restore immune system function. Current clinical trials are testing immunotherapy as a way to treat gallbladder cancer.
Gene therapy. Gene therapy is an experimental treatment that involves introducing genetic material into a person's cells to treat cancer. Gene therapy is being studied in clinical trials for many different types of cancer and for other diseases.
Chemotherapy and radiation therapy improvements. Currently, the effectiveness of chemotherapy and radiation therapy for the treatment of gallbladder cancer is limited. Clinical trials are evaluating new drugs for gallbladder cancer and trying to increase the effectiveness of radiation therapy.
Supportive care. Clinical trials are underway to find better ways of reducing symptoms and side effects of current gallbladder cancer treatments in order to improve patients' comfort and quality of life.