Problems after gallbladder cancer surgery

Most operations to remove gallbladder cancer are major operations. You usually have them in specialist centres. Like all operations there is a risk of problems or complications. 

A complication is anything that happens after surgery that makes your recovery more difficult. For example chest infections and blood clots are possible complications after any surgery.

Before offering surgery, your doctor makes sure the benefits of having the operation outweighs the risks. Discussing the risks with your surgeon will help you decide whether to have surgery or not.

Some complications can be serious and life threatening. But they are becoming less common as surgery is done at specialist centres where the surgeons do more of these operations.

Leakage of bile

Bile is a fluid that helps to digest food by breaking down fat. The liver makes bile which is stored in the gallbladder.

When the gallbladder is removed, special clips are used to seal the tube that connects the gallbladder to the main bile duct.

Sometimes after surgery bile fluid can leak out into the tummy (abdomen) when the gallbladder is removed. Symptoms of a bile leak include a swollen, painful tummy, feeling sick and a fever. A drainage tube can be left in, until the bile leak stops. 


There is a risk of infection after any operation. An infection can develop if there is a build up of fluid or blood after your surgery. The wound area may also become red and sore.

Your nurse will give you antibiotics through your drip if you develop an infection. Your doctor will drain abscesses or any fluid that has collected internally. They usually do this by using an x-ray or ultrasound to help guide a needle or tube into place.

Chest infection

A chest infection is a common complication of many operations. It happens because you are not moving around or breathing deeply enough after your surgery. What you would normally cough up stays in your lungs and becomes a focus for infection. You can help to prevent this by doing your deep breathing exercises.

Your physiotherapists Open a glossary item and nurses will get you up as soon as possible to help you get moving.

Below is a short video showing breathing and circulation exercises after surgery. 

Liver problems

Some people develop liver problems after surgery. Before you have surgery, you have tests to check how well your liver is working and to check for other liver conditions such as cirrhosis.

Liver problems could include:

  • jaundice Open a glossary item
  • abdominal pain
  • nausea and vomiting
  • indigestion or heartburn
  • problems digesting fatty foods
  • liver failure

The team looking after you will monitor you. Let them know if you have any symptoms or feel unwell. 


You may have bleeding straight after your operation. This could be because a blood vessel tie is leaking or because your blood is not clotting properly. Bleeding in the few days following surgery can happen because of an infection or a fistula Open a glossary item forming.

The treatment you need depends on what is causing the bleeding. Your doctor and nurses will check for signs of bleeding after surgery. You may need a blood transfusion after your operation.

Blood clots

Blood clots (deep vein thrombosis, DVT) are a possible complication of having surgery because you might not move about as much as usual. Clots can block the normal flow of blood through the body. Let your doctor or nurse know if you have an area in your leg that is swollen, hot, red or sore.

There is a risk that a blood clot can become loose and travel through the bloodstream to the lungs, causing a blockage there (a pulmonary embolism). Symptoms include:

  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • coughing up blood
  • feeling dizzy or light headed
If you have any symptoms of a blood clot when you are at home, see your GP or go to your nearest accident and emergency department (A&E).

To try to prevent blood clots you wear compression stockings after surgery. You also have daily injections for several weeks to thin your blood, and your nurses will encourage you to get up as soon as possible or do regular leg exercises. 

Heart problems

You have heart tests before your surgery to make sure your heart is able to cope with the operation. Gallbladder operations can increase the strain on your heart. Some people develop heart problems after surgery that they did not have before.

Your doctor and nurses will check for signs of heart problems after your operation.  

Post-cholecystectomy syndrome

Some people who have their gallbladder removed (cholecystectomy) can develop something called post-cholecystectomy syndrome (PCS). This is caused by bile leaking into areas such as the stomach, or by gallstones being left in the bile ducts.

Symptoms can include tummy pain, indigestion, diarrhoea, jaundice Open a glossary item and fever. Let your doctor know if you experience any of these symptoms. 

  • Biliary tract cancer: ESMO Clinical Practice Guideline for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up
    A. Vogel and others
    Annals of Oncology, 2023. Volume 34, Issue 2, Pages 127-140

  • Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (12th edition)
    VT DeVita, TS Lawrence, SA Rosenberg
    Wolters Kluwer, 2023

  • Post-cholecystectomy syndrome: A new look at an old problem
    D Arora and othera 
    Journal of Minimal Access Surgery, 2018. Volume 14, Issue 3, pages 202–207.

  • Venous thromboembolism in adults
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2021

Last reviewed: 
28 Sep 2023
Next review due: 
28 Sep 2023

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