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. 

Wound infection

Infection is a risk with any surgery. If you develop an infection you will need to take antibiotics. Usually, this clears up the infection. You might need to stay in hospital longer or go back into hospital if you need antibiotics through a drip.

Tell your doctor, nurse or contact your 24 hour advice line if you have symptoms of an infection. Symptoms can include:

  • a temperature of above 37.5C or below 36C
  • red, swollen or warm sensation around the wound
  • fluid seeping from the wound (discharge)
  • feeling cold and shivery
  • feeing generally unwell


Sepsis is a serious complication of an infection that can be life threatening. Sepsis happens when the body reacts to an infection and attacks its own organs and tissues. 

Your healthcare team follow strict guidelines to help prevent infection following surgery. They will watch you closely and ask you if you feel unwell. Treating an infection early can stop it becoming a more serious problem. This reduces the risk of infection developing into sepsis.

Chest infection

Chest infection is a common complication of many operations. It happens because you are not moving around enough, 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. The physiotherapists and nurses will get you up as soon as possible to help you get moving.

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 lightheaded

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.  


Some people who have had their gallbladder removed (cholecystectomy) can have problems with diarrhoea. It should improve with time but for some people it may be permanent. 

Tell your doctor or specialist nurse if you have diarrhoea. They can give you treatment to control it. 

  • 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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