Gallbladder cancer

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at February 26, 2016
StartDiseasesGallbladder cancer

Cancer that starts in the gallbladder is called gallbladder cancer. The gallbladder is on the right side of your stomach. It is quite small and shaped like a pear. The purpose of the gallbladder is to store bile, which is a fluid that the liver produces to assist digestion.


Definition & Facts

Gallbladder cancer is not common, but the chance of a cure when it is found early is quite good. However, most of the time gallbladder cancer is not found until it is in the latest stages when the chances of curing it are not good.

Symptoms & Complaints

There are often no specific symptoms or signs that are related to gallbladder cancer. The gallbladder is also small and relatively hidden behind the liver, so it makes it more difficult for cancer to be detected at an earlier stage.

When many of the symptoms are seen, they are often mistaken as numerous other illnesses. When symptoms of gallbladder cancer begin to show, they can include:


Although it is really not clear as to what causes gallbladder cancer, the cancer begins to form when there are DNA mutations within the cells of the gallbladder. Because of the mutations, the cells will begin to grow uncontrollably and continue to live as opposed to normal cells which would die.

Most of the time gallbladder cancer starts in the inner surface of the gallbladder in cells that are called glandular cells. Adenocarcinoma is the name for the gallbladder cancer that starts in this type of cell. There are certain risk factors that go along with gallbladder cancer, and they include:

  • Sex - Females are at greater risk of getting gallbladder cancer.
  • Age - The older a person gets the greater the risk of getting gallbladder cancer.
  • Weight - People who are considered to be obese have a greater risk of getting gallbladder cancer.
  • History of gallstones - Gallbladder cancer is most commonly found in people who have a history of having gallstones. But even in these people, it is rare to have gallbladder cancer.
  • Other conditions and diseases in the gallbladder - People that have had other conditions and diseases in the gallbladder are at an increased risk of getting gallbladder cancer. The diseases and conditions include gallbladder infection, choledochal cyst, and porcelain gallbladder.

Diagnosis & Tests

There are two different ways to check and verify whether or not a person has gallbladder cancer. The first is to have a blood test done. A blood test will be completed in order to see how the liver is functioning. Determining this may help pinpoint the cause of the symptoms that are seen.

The second is a procedure that will be done in order to create an image of the person's gallbladder. The different types of tests that will be done in order to create the image are CT scans, ultrasounds, and MRIs.

Once a person has been diagnosed with gallbladder cancer, the next step is to determine the stage of the cancer. Knowing what stage it is in will help the doctor determine what the treatment will be. The different tests and procedures that are used to determine the stage of cancer include:

  • Exploratory surgery - This procedure may be recommended in order to check the gallbladder and stomach area to see if there are any signs that the cancer has spread to any other area.
  • Testing to examine the bile ducts - The type of test will involve the bile ducts having a dye injected into them. An imaging test will then be used to determine where the dye goes which will show whether or not there are any blocks in the bile ducts.
  • Additional imaging tests - Additional imaging tests may be done to also determine whether or not the cancer has spread.

The different stages of gallbladder cancer are:

  • Stage I - The cancer is found only in the gallbladder's inner layers.
  • Stage II - The cancer is not only in the inner layers, but is found in the outer layer and possibly further.
  • Stage III - The cancer has metastasized to more organs.
  • Stage IV - The cancer has moved to multiple organs and contains large tumors, and other tumors have been found in other areas of the body that are more distant from the gallbladder.

Treatment & Therapy

The type of treatment that will be used depends on the stage the cancer is in. If the cancer is only found in the gallbladder, the gallbladder will be removed. If the cancer has started to spread to the liver, the gallbladder along with a portion of the liver may need to be removed. If the cancer has spread to other organs within the body then surgery is not an option. Other treatments that may be used include:

  • Chemotherapy - A treatment of drugs that are used to kill the cancer.
  • Radiation therapy - High powered beams, similar to an X-ray, are used to kill the cancer.
  • Clinical trials - New or experimental drugs that have been made to treat the cancer may be used.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

There is currently no way that is known to prevent gallbladder cancer. But there are some things people can do to try and lower the risk. It is important to get to a healthy weight and stay at it, eat a balanced and healthy diet, and stay active with a regular exercise routine.

Because a risk factor of gallbladder cancer is gallstones, people with gallstones may consider having their gallbladder removed. But because there is such a low risk of anyone getting gallbladder cancer, a doctor may be reluctant to remove the gallbladder unless there are other issues with it.