Radiation Therapy for Gallbladder Cancer

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays (such as x-rays) or atomic particles to destroy cancer cells. There are different kinds of radiation therapy

For gallbladder cancer, a machine is used to create a beam of x-rays or particles that are aimed at the cancer. This is known as external beam radiation therapy (EBRT).

Before your treatments start, the radiation team will take careful measurements to determine the correct angles for aiming the radiation beams and the proper dose of radiation. The treatment is much like getting an x-ray, but the radiation is much stronger. The procedure itself is painless. Each treatment lasts only a few minutes, but the setup time − getting you into place for treatment − usually takes longer. Most often, radiation treatments are given 5 days a week for several weeks.

Newer radiation techniques now allow doctors to more accurately treat gallbladder cancers while reducing the radiation exposure to nearby healthy tissues. These may increase success rates and help reduce side effects.

Three-dimensional conformal radiation therapy (3D-CRT): 3D-CRT uses special computers to precisely map the location of the tumor(s). Radiation beams are then shaped and aimed at the tumor(s) from several directions, which makes it less likely to damage normal tissues.

Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT): IMRT is an advanced form of 3D therapy. It uses a computer-driven machine that moves around the patient as it delivers radiation. Along with shaping the beams and aiming them at the cancer from several angles, the intensity (strength) of the beams can be adjusted to limit the dose reaching the most sensitive normal tissues. This lets doctors deliver an even higher dose to the cancer areas.

Uses of radiation therapy

Radiation therapy can be used in several ways to treat gallbladder cancer.

  • After surgery has removed the cancer: Radiation may be used to try to kill any cancer that might have been left after surgery but was too small to see. This is known as adjuvant therapy. Radiation therapy is often given along with a chemotherapy drug such as 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) or capecitabine, which can make the radiation more effective. Giving chemotherapy and radiation together is called chemoradiation. Some studies have shown that giving chemoradiation after surgery may help patients live longer, especially those whose cancer had spread to lymph nodes.
  • As part of the main therapy for some advanced cancers: Radiation therapy can also be used as a main therapy for some patients whose cancer is not resectable but has not spread widely throughout the body. Most often it is given along with chemotherapy (chemoradiation). The treatment in this case does not cure the cancer, but it may help patients live longer. More research is needed to find out how useful such therapy is and to figure out the best way to give it.
  • As palliative therapy: Radiation therapy is often used to help relieve symptoms if the cancer is too advanced to be cured. It may be used to relieve pain or other symptoms by shrinking tumors that are blocking passageways for blood or bile, or are pressing on nerves.

Possible side effects of radiation therapy

Side effects of radiation therapy can include sunburn-like skin problems where the radiation enters the body, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, and poor appetite. Often these go away after treatment. When radiation is given with chemotherapy, the side effects are often worse. Ask your doctor or nurse what side effects to expect and how you might prevent or relieve them.

To learn more about radiation therapy, see the Radiation Therapy section or Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master's-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: October 29, 2014 Last Revised: February 5, 2016

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