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 it can lower the risk of cancer coming back after surgery. 

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.

Chemotherapy before surgery is neoadjuvant chemotherapy. Doctors may use neoadjuvant chemotherapy to reduce the size of the cancer before surgery. This is to increase the possibility of removing all the cancer. There isn't enough evidence at the moment to know if this helps. We need more clinical trials to find out.

Chemotherapy after surgery is adjuvant chemotherapy. This is to prevent gallbladder cancer coming back. A clinical trial using a chemotherapy drug called capecitabine showed that it recuded the chances of gallbladder coming back after surgery. You can ask your doctor about this. 

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. The most common chemotherapy used is a combination of gemcitabine and cisplatin. 

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 or hand. 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.

Talk to your specialist or advice line before you stop taking a cancer drug.

Where you have chemotherapy

You usually have treatment into your bloodstream at the cancer day clinic. You might sit in a chair for a few hours so it’s a good idea to take things in to do. For example, newspapers, books or electronic devices can all help to pass the time. You can usually bring a friend or family member with you.

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

COVID swab test

Due to coronavirus, you need to have a test to check for coronavirus before you have treatment. The test is called a COVID swab test.

To have the test your nurse takes a sample from the inside of your nose and the back of your throat. They use a long cotton bud to take the sample. Or the sample might be saliva or other fluid. Depending on which test your hospital uses, it can take from 90 minutes to a few days to get a result.

At most hospitals, you have a COVID swab test 48 to 72 hours (up to 3 days) before going for your treatment in the chemotherapy unit.

This means you might have the swab test on the same day that you visit the hospital for blood tests and your doctor’s clinic appointment. If you have treatment weekly or more often, some hospitals will ask you to have the swab test on the day of treatment.

Check with your team about when you’ll have the test as there are some differences between hospitals.

Blood tests

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
  • diarrhoea or constipation
  • hair loss
Contact your doctor or nurse immediately if you have signs of infection, including a temperature above 37.5C or below 36C, 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 a few days or so. Your treatment team can help to manage any side effects that you have.

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: 
21 Jan 2020
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