Learn about this cancer that begins in the gallbladder. Treatment typically involves surgery. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy may be options.
Gallbladder cancer is an abnormal growth of cells that begins in the gallbladder.
Your gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ on the right side of your abdomen, just beneath your liver. The gallbladder stores bile, a digestive fluid produced by your liver.
Gallbladder cancer is uncommon. When gallbladder cancer is discovered at its earliest stages, the chance for a cure is very good. But most gallbladder cancers are discovered at a late stage, when the prognosis is often very poor.
Gallbladder cancer may not be discovered until it's advanced because it often causes no specific signs or symptoms. Also, the relatively hidden nature of the gallbladder makes it easier for gallbladder cancer to grow without being detected.
Gallbladder cancer begins in the cells of the gallbladder. Your gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ on the right side of your abdomen, just beneath your liver.
Gallbladder cancer signs and symptoms may include:
Make an appointment with your doctor if you experience any signs or symptoms that worry you.
It's not clear what causes gallbladder cancer.
Doctors know that gallbladder cancer forms when healthy gallbladder cells develop changes (mutations) in their DNA. A cell's DNA contains the instructions that tell a cell what to do. The changes tell the cells to grow out of control and to continue living when other cells would normally die. The accumulating cells form a tumor that can grow beyond the gallbladder and spread to other areas of the body.
Most gallbladder cancer begins in the glandular cells that line the inner surface of the gallbladder. Gallbladder cancer that begins in this type of cell is called adenocarcinoma. This term refers to the way the cancer cells appear when examined under a microscope.
The gallbladder holds bile, a yellow-green fluid produced in your liver. Bile flows from your liver into your gallbladder. It's held in the gallbladder until needed to help digest food. When you eat, your gallbladder releases bile into the bile duct. The duct carries the bile to the upper part of the small intestine (duodenum) to help break down fat in food.
Factors that can increase the risk of gallbladder cancer include:
Tests and procedures used to diagnose gallbladder cancer include:
Once your doctor diagnoses your gallbladder cancer, he or she works to find the extent (stage) of your cancer. Your gallbladder cancer's stage helps determine your prognosis and your treatment options.
Tests and procedures used to stage gallbladder cancer include:
Exploratory surgery. Your doctor may recommend surgery to look inside your abdomen for signs that gallbladder cancer has spread.
In a procedure called laparoscopy, the surgeon makes a small incision in your abdomen and inserts a tiny camera. The camera allows the surgeon to examine organs surrounding your gallbladder for signs that the cancer has spread.
Tests to examine the bile ducts. Your doctor may recommend procedures to inject dye into the bile ducts. This is followed by an imaging test that records where the dye goes. These tests can show blockages in the bile ducts.
These tests may include magnetic resonance cholangiography and endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP).
Your doctor uses information from these procedures to assign your cancer a stage. The stages of gallbladder cancer range from 0 to IV. The earliest stages indicate a cancer that's confined to the gallbladder. Later stages indicate more-advanced cancer that has grown to involve nearby organs or has spread to other areas of the body.
Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) uses a dye to highlight the bile ducts and pancreatic duct on X-ray images. A thin, flexible tube (endoscope) with a camera on the end is passed down your throat and into your small intestine. The dye enters the ducts through a small hollow tube (catheter) passed through the endoscope.
What gallbladder cancer treatment options are available to you will depend on the stage of your cancer, your overall health and your preferences.
The initial goal of treatment is to remove the gallbladder cancer, but when that isn't possible, other therapies may help control the spread of the disease and keep you as comfortable as possible.
Surgery may be an option if you have an early-stage gallbladder cancer. Options include:
If your gallbladder cancer is very small and can be removed completely with cholecystectomy, you may not need additional treatments. If there's a risk that cancer cells may remain after surgery, your doctor may recommend chemotherapy or other treatments.
Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill rapidly growing cells, including cancer cells. Chemotherapy can be administered through a vein in your arm, in pill form or both.
Chemotherapy might be recommended after surgery if there's a risk that some gallbladder cancer cells might remain. It can also be used to control the cancer if surgery isn't an option.
Radiation therapy uses high-powered beams of energy, such as X-rays and protons, to kill cancer cells. The energy beams come from a machine that moves around you as you lie on a table.
Radiation therapy is sometimes combined with chemotherapy after surgery for gallbladder cancer if the cancer couldn't be removed completely. Radiation therapy can also control gallbladder cancer that's causing pain if surgery isn't an option.
Targeted drug treatments focus on specific weaknesses present within cancer cells. By blocking these weaknesses, targeted drug treatments can cause cancer cells to die. Targeted drugs might be an option for people with advanced gallbladder cancer.
Your doctor may test your cancer cells to see which targeted drugs are most likely to work for you.
Immunotherapy is a drug treatment that helps your immune system to fight cancer. Your body's disease-fighting immune system might not attack cancer because the cancer cells produce proteins that make it hard for the immune system cells to recognize the cancer cells as dangerous. Immunotherapy works by interfering with that process.
Immunotherapy might be an option for treating advanced gallbladder cancer.
Learning you have any life-threatening illness can be devastating. And coping with a diagnosis of gallbladder cancer can be especially difficult because the disease often carries a poor prognosis. Some ideas for learning to cope with gallbladder cancer include:
Ask questions about gallbladder cancer. Write down questions you have about your cancer. Ask these questions at your next appointment. Also ask your doctor for reliable sources where you can get more information.
Knowing more about your gallbladder cancer and your treatment options may make you more comfortable when it comes to making decisions about your care.
Stay connected to friends and family. Your cancer diagnosis can be stressful for friends and family, too. Try to keep them involved in your life.
Your friends and family will likely ask if there's anything they can do to help you. Think of tasks you might like help with, such as caring for your home if you have to stay in the hospital or just being there when you want to talk.
You may find comfort in the support of a caring group of your friends and family.
Start by making an appointment with your family doctor if you have signs or symptoms that worry you.
If your doctor suspects you may have gallbladder cancer, you may be referred to a specialist, such as:
Because appointments can be short, and because there's a lot of information to discuss, it's a good idea to be prepared. Here's some information to help you get ready, and what to expect from your doctor.
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For gallbladder cancer, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask other questions during your appointment.
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may allow more time later to cover other points you want to address. Your doctor may ask: