Healthcare professionals may use chemotherapy in several ways to treat gallbladder cancer.

Gallbladder cancer is a relatively uncommon form of cancer, and it can be hard to detect early.

If doctors find your gallbladder cancer before it spreads to other tissues, you might be able to have your gallbladder removed. Your doctor might recommend chemotherapy either before or after this procedure.

If gallbladder cancer has already spread by the time of diagnosis, chemotherapy is often the first choice for treatment.

Let’s look closely at chemotherapy and how it’s used to treat gallbladder cancer.

Chemotherapy drugs enter your bloodstream and travel throughout your body. This helps them attack cancer cells that may have spread beyond your gallbladder, either in the nearby tissues or in more distant parts of your body.

The drugs are often administered intravenously, but they can also come in pill form. Alternatively, healthcare professionals may surgically insert a catheter into your gallbladder’s main blood supply and inject chemotherapy treatments there.

Chemotherapy uses powerful medications to target and attack rapidly dividing cells such as cancer cells.

You might take one chemotherapy drug or a combination of several. You might undergo chemotherapy on its own or in combination with radiotherapy.

Chemotherapy treatments follow a schedule. Healthcare professionals will administer a course of medication for a certain period of time, and then you will stop receiving the medication to give your body a chance to rest. These cycles will repeat several times and can last from days to months.

After surgery to remove cancer

Chemotherapy is regularly used after gallbladder removal surgery. The goal in this case is usually to prevent any leftover cancer cells from spreading and growing.

On cancers that cannot be removed or have spread

If your gallbladder cancer is too big to be removed, chemotherapy may be able to shrink the tumor enough to allow for surgery. But this is uncommon and not always possible.

In other cases, chemotherapy can be used to prevent gallbladder cancer from spreading further or to stop cancerous tumors throughout your body from growing larger.

Palliative therapy

If your gallbladder cancer is advanced, a cure may not be possible, but chemotherapy may still be an effective way to manage symptoms.

If chemotherapy reduces the size of cancerous tumors, you may notice pain relief. This type of chemotherapy may also improve your long-term outlook, but more research is still needed on this.

Today, the only recognized cure for gallbladder cancer is gallbladder removal — and only if the cancer hasn’t spread to other tissues.

However, chemotherapy has generally been effective at increasing 1- and 3-year survival rates for people with gallbladder cancer, especially if it can be combined with surgery.

Chemotherapy uses strong medications to target cells in your body that are dividing rapidly. Because rapid division is a hallmark of most cancers, chemotherapy can be an effective treatment for them.

Some noncancerous cells in your body can also divide rapidly, including cells in your bone marrow, gastrointestinal tract, and hair. This is why chemotherapy can lead to reduced white blood cell counts, digestive issues, and hair loss.

Additional treatments, such as antinausea medications, may help lessen the side effects of chemotherapy. The side effects usually subside after your chemotherapy treatments stop, but there is a risk that you’ll continue to experience them.

Chemotherapy drugs that you might take to treat gallbladder cancer include:

These drugs can be used individually or in combination.

If your gallbladder cancer has not spread or has spread only to the immediate area surrounding your gallbladder, you may be a candidate for surgery to remove your gallbladder, which is called a cholecystectomy.

You might undergo chemotherapy after you’ve healed from gallbladder removal surgery. It can help destroy any cancer cells that might have survived the surgery.

In later stages of gallbladder cancer, surgery is not an effective treatment. In this case, you might undergo chemotherapy to help minimize the symptoms of gallbladder cancer, such as by reducing the size of tumors in your bile ducts.

In some cases you might receive chemotherapy before a cholecystectomy to try to shrink the tumor to a more operable size, although this is less common.

Who should avoid it?

Chemotherapy can be very hard on your body. The stage of your gallbladder cancer and your overall health status will determine the benefits, risks, and side effects of chemotherapy treatment. Your doctor can help you decide whether this treatment is worth pursuing in your unique circumstances.

Depending on the stage of your gallbladder cancer at the time of diagnosis, your overall health, and your treatment goals, you might be interested in participating in a clinical trial.

Alternative treatments for gallbladder cancer currently being studied include:

  • hyperthermia therapy
  • radiosensitizers
  • targeted therapy
  • immune checkpoint inhibitor therapy

The only cure for gallbladder cancer is the removal of your gallbladder, and this is only an option if the cancer has not spread to other tissues.

Chemotherapy can be used before or after gallbladder removal surgery. It can be used on its own or in combination with radiation to reduce the spread and symptoms of cancer.

It can increase your life expectancy, but it also comes with risks and side effects. Your doctor can provide you with more information.