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 doctor may advise radiation therapy as part of your treatment.

When radiation therapy may be used

Radiation can be used before surgery to try to shrink the size of a tumor. This may make surgery easier and more effective. It may also be used after surgery to try to kill any cancer cells that were missed or could not be removed during surgery. If surgery is not possible, you may have radiation to help ease symptoms.

How radiation therapy is done

There are two main types of radiation therapy:

  • External radiation. This uses a machine that sends radiation through beams pointed at the skin over the tumor.

  • Internal radiation (brachytherapy). This uses radioactive material that is placed in the body, near the tumor.

External beam radiation therapy (EBRT)

When the radiation comes from a machine outside the body, it is called external beam radiation therapy (EBRT). The experience is a lot like getting an X-ray, but it takes longer. For this treatment, you see a radiation oncologist. This doctor 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 doctors send an even higher dose to the cancer areas.

Internal radiation therapy (brachytherapy)

For brachytherapy, the doctor inserts an implant that contains radiation. It’s put as close as possible to the tumor or into the tumor itself. This is so fewer normal cells are exposed to radiation. 

The amount of time that the implant stays in your body will vary. High-dose-rate brachytherapy uses a powerful radioactive material that is only left in for a few minutes and then removed. Low-dose implants may be left in permanently. These stop releasing radiation over time. In some cases, you may need to take special precautions to avoid exposing other people to radiation from your implants. Your doctor will let you know if this is needed.

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. If you have internal radiation therapy, you will be less likely to have side effects. Some common side effects of external radiation include:

  • Skin irritation in the areas getting radiation

  • Fatigue

  • Nausea

  • Diarrhea

 These often go away when your treatment ends. Always tell your doctor or nurse about side effects you have. They may be able to help ease them.