Surgery for gallbladder cancer is generally more successful if the cancer hasn’t spread beyond the gallbladder, if the tumor is small, and if the cancer cells look more like gallbladder cells (less atypical).

Gallbladder cancer is a type of cancer that develops in the gallbladder, an organ that stores bile used for digestion. Overall, it’s a rare type of cancer. An estimated 12,220 new diagnoses will be made in the United States in 2023.

Surgery is one of the treatment options for gallbladder cancer. It can be used to try to cure the cancer or to better manage the cancer and its symptoms.

Keep reading to learn more about gallbladder cancer surgery and its success rates.

Generally speaking, there are two types of surgery for gallbladder cancer: potentially curative surgery and palliative surgery.

Potentially curative surgery

Potentially curative surgery is done if imaging and other tests show that the cancer may be able to be removed completely. The goal of this surgery is to cure the cancer.

The type of procedure used for potentially curative surgery is called a cholecystectomy, which removes the gallbladder. When only the gallbladder is removed, it’s called a simple cholecystectomy.

Sometimes, cancer has spread to other tissues around the gallbladder. In this situation, a radical cholecystectomy may be used. This removes the gallbladder as well as the other affected tissues like:

Palliative surgery

If the cancer can’t be removed completely, surgery may still be done. The goal of this type of surgery is to ease your symptoms and help you to live longer.

The types of procedures used for palliative surgery are typically aimed at addressing a blocked bile duct, which can lead to symptoms like jaundice, pain, nausea, and vomiting. The types of procedures used for this can include:

  • stent placement, which puts a thin tube through the blockage and keeps the bile duct open
  • catheter placement, which allows bile to drain into a bag located outside of your body
  • biliary bypass, where surgery is used to create a route that bypasses the blockage

It’s also important to point out that stent or catheter placement can also be used in people who will go on to have potentially curative surgery. This may be done to ease symptoms of a bile duct blockage before a cholecystectomy.

Surgery is the only potentially curative treatment for gallbladder cancers that are at stage 2 or lower. This means that the cancer is still localized to the gallbladder and may have only spread to nearby fibrous tissue.

However, only 1 in 5 gallbladder cancers are diagnosed while in these early stages. That means that most gallbladder cancers are diagnosed at more advanced stages when potentially curative surgery is less likely to be possible.

Gallbladder surgery success and outlook

An older 2014 study assessed 106 people undergoing potentially curative surgery for gallbladder cancer. It found that 75 (70.8%) had no detectable cancer after surgery. The average 5-year survival rate for these individuals was 63%.

However, it’s still possible for cancer to come back after surgery. A 2016 study found that, of 217 people who had potentially curative surgery, 76 (35%) had a recurrence. The median time to recurrence was 9.5 months.

Recurrent cancer was also associated with worse overall 5-year survival compared with those without a recurrence (16% versus 75.9%, respectively).

Some of the factors that are associated with better surgical outcomes include:

  • smaller tumor size
  • cancer that remains in the gallbladder and hasn’t spread into lymph nodes or other nearby tissues
  • lower grade cancer, which means that the cancer cells look more like normal gallbladder cells and are less atypical
  • negative surgical margins, meaning that the edge or border of the removed tissue doesn’t contain cancer cells

The outlook for people receiving only palliative surgery is typically poorer. A 2016 study found that the 5-year survival rate was 44% for those who had potentially curative surgery and 7.7% for those who had only palliative surgery.

Like any surgery, gallbladder cancer surgery carries the risk of unwanted side effects. The potential side effects can depend on the type and extent of surgery you have and may include:

It’s important to be aware of the potential side effects of your surgery. The medical care team will go over the side effects associated with your specific surgery prior to your procedure.

Other treatments are also used for gallbladder cancer. These are chemotherapy and radiation therapy, which may be used in the following circumstances:

  • after surgery to kill remaining cancer cells (adjuvant therapy)
  • as the main treatment(s) for individuals who can’t receive potentially curative surgery
  • to help relieve gallbladder cancer symptoms (palliative therapy)

In some situations, chemotherapy may be given along with radiation therapy. This can help the radiation therapy work better and is called chemoradiation.

Newer treatments for gallbladder cancer are also being tested in clinical trials. Depending on factors like the extent of your cancer and your response to standard treatments, a care team may recommend that you participate in a clinical trial.

Because many gallbladder cancers aren’t found until they’ve reached a more advanced stage, the outlook for people with gallbladder cancer is generally quite poor.

According to the American Cancer Society, the relative 5-year survival rates for people with a gallbladder cancer diagnosis in the United States between 2011 and 2017 were:

  • 66% when the cancer remained localized to the gallbladder
  • 28% when the cancer had spread into nearby lymph nodes or tissues
  • 2% when the cancer had spread to more distant parts of the body like the liver and lungs
  • 19% overall

These statistics are just that — statistics. They don’t reflect individual factors or more recent advances in treatment. As such, ask the medical care team for an estimation of your individual outlook.

Surgery for gallbladder cancer can be either potentially curative or palliative. Which type of surgery is recommended depends on the extent of your cancer at diagnosis.

In many people with early stage gallbladder cancer, potentially curative surgery can remove the cancer completely. However, it’s still possible for gallbladder cancer to return in the future.

Other treatments for gallbladder cancer are chemotherapy and radiation therapy. If you’ve received a gallbladder cancer diagnosis, ask the care team about the types of treatments recommended and how they may impact your outlook.