Surgery for gallbladder cancer can be successful at removing cancer cells, particularly when doctors diagnose the cancer at an early stage and the person is in otherwise good health.

Gallbladder cancer is rare and often difficult to diagnose. This is because its symptoms are vague and may not occur until the cancer is at an advanced stage.

Surgery is the only curative treatment option for earlier stages of gallbladder cancer. Doctors may also consider surgery as a palliative option to relieve symptoms if a person’s cancer has spread to other body parts.

This article discusses surgery as a treatment for gallbladder cancer, including success rates, the different types of surgery, potential risks, and other treatment options.

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Surgery is often the first-line treatment if doctors can diagnose gallbladder cancer early. It involves removing the gallbladder and possibly part of the liver or other tissues nearby if the cancer has spread.

The success rate of surgery depends on many factors, including:

  • Stage of the cancer: Surgery is most effective in treating gallbladder cancer in its early stages. If the cancer has spread to other organs or tissues, surgery may be part of a combination of treatments and is less likely to result in a cure.
  • Overall health: People in good general health are more suitable candidates for surgery and more likely to have a successful outcome.
  • Surgeon’s experience: The expertise and experience of the surgeon also play a crucial role in the effectiveness of the surgery.

Learn more about gallbladder cancer surgery.

Success rates

Gallbladder cancer surgery has a higher success rate at the earlier stages of cancer. However, only 1 in 5 people receive a diagnosis in the early stages.

A 2021 study examined 461 people who had a surgical resection for gallbladder cancer from 1988 to 2013. The study’s authors found that the 5-year survival rate following this treatment was 57%.

A smaller 2020 study looked at the outcomes of people with a gallbladder cancer diagnosis after laparoscopic cholecystectomy, a type of surgery to remove the gallbladder.

The study’s authors found that 12 out of 26 people survived through the follow-up period without a gallbladder cancer recurrence.

Cancer recurrence

In the early stages, surgery for gallbladder cancer is more likely to be curative, removing all traces of cancer cells. However, gallbladder cancer has a high recurrence rate.

A 2022 study found that gallbladder cancer recurred in 55 out of 139 people who had surgical resection treatment. Of these 55 people, 14 had a cancer recurrence within 6 months of their surgery, which the authors associated with a very poor outlook.

A person’s individual circumstances and the stage and progression of their gallbladder cancer will determine the type or combination of surgeries that will suit them.

Speaking with a surgical oncologist who specializes in treating gallbladder and other hepato-biliary cancers is crucial to determine the best surgical approach.

Curative surgery

Surgery is the only curative treatment available for people with stage 2 gallbladder cancer or lower. The primary goal of curative surgery is to remove all of the cancer cells.

It is most effective when the cancer is localized to the gallbladder and has not spread to nearby tissues or distant organs.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) lists the following types of curative surgeries:

  • Simple cholecystectomy: This is where doctors remove the gallbladder. This is typically for early stage gallbladder cancers.
  • Extended (or radical) cholecystectomy: Surgeons remove the gallbladder, a portion of the liver, segments of the bile duct, and nearby lymph nodes. They may do this when the cancer has spread beyond the gallbladder but is still relatively localized.

Palliative surgery

Palliative surgeries do not intend to cure the cancer but to relieve symptoms or complications, improving the affected person’s quality of life.

Doctors typically perform them when the cancer is advanced or curative surgery is not an option. Some palliative surgeries include:

  • Biliary bypass: If the tumor blocks the small intestine and causes bile to build up in the liver, a biliary bypass can help by rerouting the flow of bile from the common bile duct directly to the small intestine.
  • Endoscopic stent placement: Instead of rerouting the bile duct, doctors can place a thin tube called a stent inside to keep it open, allowing bile to flow into the small intestine.
  • Percutaneous transhepatic biliary drainage (PTBD): In this procedure, surgeons insert a catheter through the skin directly into the liver to drain bile from the liver into the small intestine or a bag outside the body.

As with all surgeries, operations for gallbladder cancer come with potential risks and side effects.

The severity and likelihood of these complications can vary based on the person’s overall health, the extent of the surgery, the experience of the surgical team, and other individual factors.

According to the ACS, some general risks and side effects of surgery for gallbladder cancer include:

Gallbladder cancer may require a combination of treatments or alternative therapies to surgery, especially when a doctor diagnoses it at a later stage. Other treatment options that a doctor may suggest include:

Anyone with gallbladder cancer should speak with their healthcare team to find out if surgery is appropriate for their situation. While surgery may not be effective for everyone, a healthcare team can determine the best course of action.

An early diagnosis is crucial for improving outlook. Gallbladder cancer may not show symptoms in the earliest stages, but symptoms can include the following:

Surgery is a primary treatment for gallbladder cancer when a person has an early diagnosis. Surgery success rates vary based on the cancer’s stage, the person’s health, and the surgeon’s experience.

Surgery may not be as successful for people with more advanced cancers. However, surgeons can perform surgery for palliative reasons in these cases.

Other palliative treatment options can include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and immunotherapy.