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Gallbladder cancer

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Supportive care for gallbladder cancer

Supportive careSupportive careTreatment given to improve the quality of life of people who have a serious illness (such as cancer). helps people meet the physical, practical, emotional and spiritual challenges of gallbladder cancer. It is an important part of cancer care. There are many programs and services available to help meet the needs and improve the quality of life of people living with cancer and their loved ones, especially after treatment has ended.

Recovering from gallbladder cancer and adjusting to life after treatment is different for each person, depending on the extent of the disease, the type of treatment and many other factors. The end of cancer treatment may bring mixed emotions. Even though treatment has ended, there may be other issues to deal with, such as coping with long-term side effects. A person who has been treated for gallbladder cancer may have the following concerns.


Pain can occur with gallbladder cancer or its treatment. People with gallbladder cancer may experience pain because the tumour grows into surrounding nerves and organs, such as the liver, small intestine or pancreas, or blocks the common bile duct.

The amount of pain often increases as the cancer advances.

Pain may be treated by:

  • external beam radiation therapy
    • Palliative radiation therapy may be helpful in relieving pain in people with advanced gallbladder cancer. It can help to shrink tumours that are pressing on nerves or other organs.
  • palliative surgery or procedures
    • Palliative surgery or procedures are not used to remove the tumour. They are done to relieve pain and restore the flow of bile if a tumour blocks the bile duct. Palliative surgery or procedures may include a biliary bypass or inserting a stent or catheter.
  • pain-relieving medications
  • alcohol injection
    • An alcohol injection may be used to help relieve pain. Alcohol is injected into or around the nerves (nerve block) that carry sensations of pain from the gallbladder and intestinal area to the brain. The alcohol helps deaden the nerves and relieve pain.


Jaundice can occur with gallbladder cancer. When a gallbladder tumour blocks (obstructs) the gallbladder or bile duct, or spreads (metastasizes) to the liver, then bile cannot drain properly. As bile builds up in the blood and the skin, it causes jaundice.

Jaundice results in:

  • yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes
  • dark yellow urine
  • severe itching (pruritus)
  • pale coloured stools

Treatment is aimed at managing the obstruction and relieving symptoms of jaundice. Surgery or procedures that may be used to relieve an obstruction in the biliary tract include:

  • inserting a small metal or plastic tube (stent) to keep the bile duct open
  • inserting a tube (catheter) to help drain bile
  • a biliary bypass to create a drainage route for bile around the blockage

Itching may be relieved by:

  • anti-itch medicines, including:
    • oral antihistamines
    • cholestyramine (Questran), a drug that binds with bile salts in the body so they can be excreted
  • topical treatments (creams or lotions applied to the skin), including:
    • corticosteroid cream
    • calamine lotion
    • antihistamine cream
  • using mild soap and applying moisturizing lotions after a bath
  • using an oil or oatmeal bath preparation
  • not wearing wool clothing or synthetic fabrics that can irritate the skin
  • wearing loose-fitting clothing
  • keeping the environment humid and cool

Loss of appetite

Many people with gallbladder cancer have advanced disease when they are diagnosed. As the cancer progresses, people can lose their appetite and their nutritional intake can be poor. Loss of appetite can also cause a person to lose weight. Jaundice can result in changes in taste. Nausea and vomiting can also affect a person's appetite.

Trying small amounts of high-calorie foods or fluids, having smaller, more frequent meals and nutritional supplements can be helpful. Anti-nausea drugs can be used to control nausea and vomiting. Cold foods may be better tolerated and using plastic cutlery can help if foods have a metallic taste. When appropriate, the doctor may order medicines to help increase appetite.

Coping with advanced gallbladder cancer

People with advanced gallbladder cancer are offered palliative care. This is a special type of care that focuses on making the person as comfortable as possible, relieving symptoms, providing support and improving or maintaining the person's quality of life.

See a list of questions to ask your doctor about supportive care after treatment.


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