Gallbladder Cancer: Radiation Therapy

What is radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy is a treatment for cancer that uses rays of energy. A machine directs the rays of energy 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, your healthcare provider may advise radiation therapy as part of your treatment.

When radiation therapy may be used

Radiation may be used after surgery to try to kill any cancer cells that might have been missed or could not be removed during surgery. If surgery is not possible, you may have radiation as the 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. Many times, 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 instance, 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. The experience is a lot like getting an X-ray, but it takes longer. For this treatment, you see a radiation oncologist. This healthcare provider specializes 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 external beam radiation that may be used with gallbladder cancer are:

  • Three-dimensional conformal radiation therapy (3D-CRT). With 3D-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). With 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 healthcare providers send an even higher dose to the cancer areas.

  • Proton beam therapy. With proton beam therapy, the type of energy beam is different from conventional external beam radiation (proton beams are used instead of photon beams). This allows for more precise delivery of the radiation beam and may help keep nearby tissues from being exposed to high doses of radiation. 

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 external radiation include:

  • Skin irritation in the treatment areas

  • Fatigue

  • Nausea

  • Diarrhea

These often get worse as treatment goes on and slowly go away when your treatment ends. Always tell your healthcare providers about side effects you have. They may be able to help ease them.  

Online Medical Reviewer: Levy, Adam S, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Stump-Sutliff, Kim, RN, MSN, AOCNS
Date Last Reviewed: 10/1/2017
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