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Gallbladder Cancer: Radiation Therapy

What is radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy is a treatment that uses strong rays of energy or particles to kill cancer cells. A machine directs the rays to the area of cancer. Radiation therapy is also called radiotherapy. Its goal is to kill or shrink cancer cells. If you have gallbladder cancer, radiation therapy may be part of your treatment.

When radiation therapy may be used

Radiation may be used after surgery to try to kill any cancer cells that may have been left behind.

If surgery can't be done, radiation may be your main treatment. This is most often done when the tumor has spread to tissues near the gallbladder, but not to other parts of your body. In many cases, chemotherapy is given along with the radiation to help it work better.

Palliative radiation is used to help ease symptoms but not to cure the cancer. For example, it can help shrink a tumor that's pressing on nerves or blood vessels.

How radiation therapy is done

External beam radiation therapy (EBRT) is used to treat gallbladder cancer. The radiation comes from a machine outside your body. The machine makes noise and moves around you. But it doesn't touch you. EBRT is a lot like getting an X-ray, but it takes longer.

For this treatment, you see a radiation oncologist. This is a doctor who has extra training in the use of radiation to kill cancer cells. He or she decides how often you need radiation and at what dose.               

The types of EBRT that may be used for gallbladder cancer are:

  • 3-D conformal radiation therapy (3-D-CRT).  With 3-D-CRT, radiation beams are aimed at the tumor from different angles. This makes it less likely to damage normal tissues.

  • Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). In IMRT, the radiation beams are also aimed from different directions. But the strength of the beams is also adjusted to keep the highest doses only on the tumor. This lets your healthcare team send an even higher dose to the cancer.

  • Intraoperative radiation therapy (IORT). In some cases, radiation therapy is used during surgery. This way, it can directly target the cancer and prevent damage to nearby organs.

  • Chemoradiation. Chemo is often given along with radiation to help it work better.

Side effects of radiation therapy 

Radiation affects both normal cells and cancer cells. This means it can cause side effects. What the effects are depends on what part of your body is treated and what type of radiation you get. Some common side effects of EBRT include:

  • Redness, blistering, and peeling of skin in the treatment area, like a sunburn

  • Tiredness

  • Nausea

  • Diarrhea

  • Liver damage

Side effects tend to start a few weeks into treatment. Many get worse as treatment goes on and then slowly go away after treatment ends. Tell your healthcare team about side effects you have. There may be ways to help ease them.  

Online Medical Reviewer: Kimberly Stump-Sutliff RN MSN AOCNS
Online Medical Reviewer: Louise Cunningham RN BSN
Online Medical Reviewer: Richard LoCicero MD
Date Last Reviewed: 10/1/2020
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