Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center - Health Library

Health Library Home>Disease, Condition, & Injury Fact Sheets>Article

Gallbladder Cancer

Definition

Gallbladder cancer is when cancer cells grow in the gallbladder. This is a somewhat rare form of cancer. The gallbladder is a small organ that sits beneath the liver. It stores a digestive fluid called bile.

The Gallbladder

Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Causes

Cancer happens when cells divide without control or order. These cells grow together to form a tumor. They can invade and damage nearby tissues. They can also spread to other parts of the body. It is not clear what causes changes in the cells. It is likely a combination of genes and environment.

Risk Factors

Gallbladder cancer is more common in older adults and women. It is also more common in people from South America, parts of Asia, and Eastern Europe. Other things that may raise the risk are:

  • A history of gallstones
  • Defects of the gallbladder and ducts
  • Gallbladder polyps and choledochal cysts
  • Liver flukes
  • Infections, such as typhoid fever, salmonella, or H. Pylori
  • Having many pregnancies and births
  • Obesity

Symptoms

Gallbladder cancer often has no symptoms in the early stages. When symptoms appear, they may be:

  • Pain in the belly
  • Pain in the upper back
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Lack of hunger
  • Weight loss
  • Feeling weak and tired
  • Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes— jaundice

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done. Gallbladder cancer is often hard to diagnose because there are no early symptoms. It is often found during abdominal surgery for other reasons.

Tests may include:

  • Blood tests
  • Biopsy —a sample of tissue is removed for testing

Imaging tests will check the gallbladder and other structures. They may include:

The exam and test results are used to diagnose the cancer. They are also used for staging. Staging outlines how far and fast cancer has spread.

Treatment

Treatment depends on the stage of the cancer. The goal is to remove all the cancer, if possible. For advanced cancers, treatment is done only to help ease symptoms. Options may be:

  • Cholecystectomy—removal of the gallbladder and possibly part of the liver and nearby lymph nodes
  • ECRP— surgery to open blocked bile ducts and ease symptoms
  • Chemotherapy by mouth, injection, or IV—to kill cancer cells
  • Radiation therapy—to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors

Prevention

There are no current guidelines to prevent gallbladder cancer.

RESOURCES:

American Cancer Society
https://www.cancer.org

National Cancer Institute
https://www.cancer.gov

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Cancer Society
https://www.cancer.ca

Provincial Health Services Authority
http://www.bccancer.bc.ca

REFERENCES:

Cholangiocarcinoma and gallbladder cancer. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/cholangiocarcinoma-and-gallbladder-cancer . Accessed March 25, 2021.

Gallbladder cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/gallbladder-cancer.html. Accessed March 25, 2021.

Hickman L, Contreras C. Gallbladder cancer: diagnosis, surgical management, and adjuvant therapies. Surg Clin North Am. 2019;99(2):337-355.

Tumors of the gallbladder and bile ducts. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/hepatic-and-biliary-disorders/gallbladder-and-bile-duct-disorders/tumors-of-the-gallbladder-and-bile-ducts. Accessed March 25, 2021.

Last reviewed January 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Mohei Abouzied, MD, FACP  Last Updated: 3/25/2021