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Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses anti cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. You might have it as part of your treatment for gallbladder cancer.

The drugs circulate throughout the body in the bloodstream. Chemotherapy alone won't cure gallbladder cancer but specialists use it in several different situations.

Chemotherapy for early stage gallbladder cancer

Chemotherapy is not often used for early stage gallbladder cancer. Early stage means that the cancer hasn't spread beyond the gallbladder.

Doctors are researching using chemotherapy before surgery for some patients with localised gallbladder cancer. This is to see if it helps to stop the cancer from coming back. This is called neoadjuvant chemotherapy. There is not enough evidence at the moment to know if this can help people live longer. We need more results from clinical trials.

Doctors are also looking at chemotherapy after surgery, to see if it helps prevent gallbladder cancer coming back. This is called adjuvant chemotherapy. Although some studies show that adjuvant chemotherapy can help, the evidence from these studies is weak. We need more results from clinical trials before we know whether or not adjuvant chemotherapy is helpful.

Chemotherapy for advanced gallbladder cancer

If you have advanced gallbladder cancer, your doctor may suggest chemotherapy to try to shrink the cancer, slow it down, or relieve any symptoms you have.

Having treatment

Most chemotherapy drugs for gallbladder cancer are given into the bloodstream through a vein in your arm. Some drugs are tablets that you swallow.

Into your bloodstream

You have the treatment through a drip into your arm. A nurse puts a small tube (a cannula) into one of your veins and connects the drip to it.

You might need a central line. This is a long plastic tube that gives the drugs into a large vein, either in your chest or through a vein in your arm. It stays in while you’re having treatment, which may be for a few months.

Taking your tablets or capsules

You must take tablets and capsules according to the instructions your doctor or pharmacist gives you.

Whether you have a full or empty stomach can affect how much of a drug gets into your bloodstream.

You should take the right dose, not more or less.

Never stop taking a cancer drug without talking to your specialist first.

Where you have chemotherapy

You usually have treatment into your bloodstream at the cancer day clinic. You’ll sit in a chair for a few hours so it’s a good idea to take newspapers, books or electronic devices to help to pass the time.

You have some types of chemotherapy over several days. You might be able to have some drugs through a small portable pump you take home.

For some types of chemotherapy you have to stay in a hospital ward. This could be overnight or for a couple of days.

Before you start chemotherapy

You need to have blood tests to make sure it’s safe to start treatment. You have these either a few days before or on the day you start treatment. You have blood tests before each round or cycle of treatment.

Side effects

Common chemotherapy side effects include:

  • feeling sick
  • loss of appetite
  • losing weight
  • feeling very tired
  • a lower resistance to infections
  • bleeding and bruising easily
Contact the doctor or nurse immediately if you have any signs of infection such as a temperature higher than 38C or generally feeling unwell. Infections can make you very unwell very quickly.

Side effects depend on:

  • which drugs you have
  • how much of each drug you have
  • how you react

Tell your treatment team about any side effects that you have.

Most side effects only last for the few days that you’re having the chemotherapy drugs. The team caring for you can help to reduce your side effects.

Dietary or herbal supplements

We don't yet know much scientifically about how some nutritional or herbal supplements might interact with chemotherapy. Some could be harmful.

It is very important to tell your doctors if you take any supplements, or if you are prescribed them by alternative or complementary therapy practitioners. 

Talk to your specialist about any other tablets or medicines you take while you are having active treatment.

Some studies seem to suggest that fish oil preparations might make some chemotherapy drugs work less well. If you take or are thinking of taking these supplements, talk to your doctor to find out whether they could affect your treatment.

When you go home

Chemotherapy for gallbladder cancer can be difficult to cope with. Tell your doctor or nurse about any problems or side effects that you have. Your nurse will give you telephone numbers to call if you have any problems at home.

Last reviewed: 
12 Jun 2014
  • Cisplatin plus gemcitabine versus gemcitabine for biliary tract cancer. 
    Valle J, Wasan H, Palmer D, Cunningham D et al (2010)
    The New England Journal of Medicine, 362: 1273-81

  • Biliary cancer: ESMO clinical practice guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow up. 
    Eckel F, Brunner T, Jelic S (2010)
    Annals of Oncology (supplement 5): v65-v69

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