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Radiation Therapy for Gallbladder Cancer

If you have been diagnosed with gallbladder cancer, your doctor may recommend radiation therapy as part of your treatment.

This type of treatment uses high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from multiplying. It can be used after surgery, to kill any cancer that is too small to see, or on inoperable cancers to prevent their spread. It can also be used to shrink tumors, which can in turn relieve pain. Two types of radiation therapy are available: external beam radiation therapy and internal radiation therapy.

External beam radiation therapy

External beam radiation therapy (EBRT) is the most common type of radiation treatment for gallbladder cancer. During EBRT, which is a painless procedure, a machine aims a beam of radiation at a specific place on your body. Each treatment only takes a few minutes to complete, but your entire appointment may take as long as an hour. Most people receive external radiation therapy once a day for five days.

If your doctor recommends external radiation therapy, you may receive a special type of therapy called three-dimensional conformal radiation therapy, or 3D-CRT. This radiation therapy uses computers to map the location of your gallbladder cancer and aims radiation at the location from several directions, minimizing damage to healthy tissue.

Internal radiation therapy

Another type of radiation therapy for gallbladder cancer is internal radiation therapy, also known as brachytherapy. While you’re under general or local anesthesia, your doctor will position an implant containing radioactive material close to the cancer or tumor in a way that harms as few healthy cells as possible. 

The amount of time that the implant stays within your body will vary depending on your treatment plan. One type of internal radiation therapy known as high-dose-rate brachytherapy uses a powerful radioactive material that is only left in for a few minutes and then removed. Other smaller implants may be left in permanently; these gradually stop releasing radiation over time. In some cases, you may need to take special precautions to avoid exposing your family and friends to radiation from your implants. Your doctor will let you know if this is necessary.

Side effects of radiation therapy

When undergoing any type of radiation therapy, you may experience common side effects, such as diarrhea, hair loss in the treatment area, and dry, itchy skin. Most of these side effects disappear a few weeks after radiation therapy is over. If you received an implant as part of an internal radiation therapy treatment, you may have swelling or discomfort in the area where the implant was inserted.

Some people experience certain side effects several months or years after the radiation therapy ends. These can include infertility and lymphedema, which is swelling in a leg or arm caused by excess lymph fluid. Radiation therapy can also cause new cancer years later, but this is rare. In most cases, the benefits of radiation therapy for cancer far outweigh the risks.

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