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What is Gallbladder Cancer?

The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ in the body. It is about 3 to 4 inches long and sits just below the liver. The gallbladder stores bile that is produced by the liver. Bile is a substance that helps to digest fats in foods as they pass through the small intestine. Gallbladder cancer occurs when cells in the gallbladder begin to grow in an uncontrolled way.

Gallbladder cancer is cancer that starts in the gallbladder and can spread to other parts of the body. Most gallbladder cancers are adenocarcinomas (ad-n-oh-kahr-suh-NOH-muhz). An adenocarcinoma is cancer that starts in cells that line many internal and external surfaces of the body. Other types of cancers that may develop in the gallbladder may include:

  • Papillary (PAP-uh-ler-ee) adenocarcinoma
  • Adenosquamous (ad-uh-noh-SQUAY-muhs) carcinomas
  • Squamous (SQUAY-muhs) cell carcinomas

The American Cancer Society estimates that 11,740 new cases of gallbladder cancer are diagnosed every year. This form of cancer is not usually discovered until its advanced stages.

Symptoms

Gallbladder cancer may not cause symptoms in its early stages. As the cancer advances, you may notice the following symptoms:

  • Abdominal pain or swelling
  • Lumps in the belly
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Jaundice (a condition that occurs when the skin and white parts of the eyes turn yellow)

When to See a Doctor

If you have symptoms of gallbladder cancer, you should talk to your healthcare provider. Gallbladder cancer is not common. Symptoms of gallbladder cancer may be caused by another underlying medical condition.

Risk Factors

In many cases, the exact cause of gallbladder cancer is unknown. Researchers have identified risk factors that may increase your likelihood of developing gallbladder cancer. These risk factors include:

  • Gallstones
  • Gallbladder polyps (growths)
  • Porcelain gallbladder (a condition in which the wall of the gallbladder becomes covered with calcium deposits
  • Problems with the bile ducts
  • Obesity
  • Age

It is important to note that having a risk factor does not mean you will get gallbladder cancer. If you have concerns, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider.

Diagnosis and Tests

Your doctor will first perform a physical exam and take a complete medical history to learn more about your symptoms. During the physical exam, your doctor will look at the abdomen to check for swelling or lumps. Your doctor will also look at your skin for any signs of jaundice. You may be referred for the following tests:

  • Blood tests
  • Ultrasound
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Cholangiography (an imaging test that evaluates the bile ducts for blockages)
  • Surgery

Treatments

Treatment for gallbladder cancer will depend on the extent of the disease and your overall health. Your healthcare team will first determine the stage of your cancer. The stage of cancer describes how far it has spread. The stage of the cancer will help your healthcare team decide the best treatment for you.

The main types of gallbladder cancer include:

  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy

Prevention

There is no way to prevent cancer completely. There are things you can do that might lower your risk of developing gallbladder cancer. These include:

  • Maintaining a healthy body weight
  • Maintaining a healthy diet
  • Removing gallbladder if you have gallstones (research shows gallstones are a risk factor for developing gallbladder cancer)