A blue and orange scan showing where the gallbladder is in the human body.
Annually, 12,000 Americans are diagnosed with gallbladder cancer.

Gallbladder Cancer Symptoms

The gallbladder is a pear-shaped organ that is located in your abdomen, just under your liver. It stores bile, which helps digest fat from the food you eat. The gallbladder wall consists of four tissue layers: the inner mucosal layer, a muscle layer, a connective tissue layer, and the outer serosal layer.

Your gallbladder, like other organs, is susceptible to growing cancerous cells. While it’s not as common as other types of cancer, it does still occur. Last year, roughly 12,000 Americans were diagnosed with gallbladder cancer. For this reason, we’ll be taking a look at gallbladder cancer symptoms, so you can catch the signs early.

What is Gallbladder Cancer?

Gallbladder cancer is a rare form of cancer that involves cancerous cells being found in the tissues of the gallbladder. Most gallbladder cancers are adenocarcinomas, which is a cancer that starts in the gland-like cells that line the inside of the digestive tract.

Other very rare types of gallbladder cancers include squamous cell carcinomas, adenosquamous carcinomas, and carcinosarcomas.

Symptoms of Gallbladder Cancer

Gallbladder cancer is often difficult to diagnose, as symptoms do not usually occur until the tumor has become large or spread to other areas of the body. Additionally, when symptoms are experienced, they are similar to a variety of other diseases.

When symptoms are experienced, they may include:

  • Abdominal pain, typically felt in the upper right part of the abdomen
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and/or eyes)
  • Abdominal lumps
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Weight loss
  • Fever
  • Dark colored urine

Risk Factors for Gallbladder Cancer

While the cause of gallbladder cancer remains unknown, researchers have identified a variety of risk factors that increase the chances of developing this type of cancer, most of which involve chronic inflammation of the gallbladder.

The biggest risk factor for developing gallbladder cancer is a history of cholecystitis, resulting in long-term inflammation of the gallbladder. This occurs when gallstones block the bile ducts and cause the gallbladder to become inflamed. This condition can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term).

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Gallstones are found in 75% to 90% of individuals with gallbladder cancer. Don’t let this statistic worry you though; just because you have gallstones doesn’t mean you’ll develop cancer. Over 99% of individuals with gallstones do not develop gallbladder cancer.

Other risk factors include:

  • Advanced age: Gallbladder cancer usually affects individuals over the age of 65, with the average age of diagnosis being 72.
  • Female sex: Women are up to four times more likely than men to develop gallbladder cancer.
  • Ethnicity: Mexicans, Native Americans and Latin Americans have the highest rates of gallbladder cancer in the U.S.
  • Family history: There’s a slightly increased risk of developing gallbladder cancer if you have a family history of the disease.
  • Gallbladder polyps: Having polyps of the gallbladder increase the risk of developing gallbladder cancer slightly.
  • Porcelain gallbladder: When your gallbladder looks white it’s the result of the walls being calcified, which can occur following chronic cholecystitis. This condition is associated with gallbladder inflammation, which increases the risk of gallbladder cancer.
  • Bile duct issues: Conditions that cause a blockage of bile flow can lead to gallbladder inflammation, which increases the risk of gallbladder cancer.
  • Primary sclerosing cholangitis: Scarring that occurs as the result of bile duct inflammation increases the risk of gallbladder cancer.
  • Typhoid: Individuals that suffer with chronic infection have an increased risk of developing gallbladder cancer.

Diagnosing Gallbladder Cancer

In some cases, gallbladder cancer is found after the gallbladder has been removed for other reasons such as chronic inflammation or gallstones. However, most cancers of the gallbladder are discovered when an individual seeks medical attention because they have gallbladder cancer symptoms.

Initially, your doctor will take a detailed medical history including your current symptoms and risk factors. Additionally, your doctor will perform a physical examination, with focus on the abdomen to evaluate for jaundice, tenderness, lumps, fluid buildup, and to assess lymph nodes.

If your history and physical examination suggest that you may have underlying gallbladder issues, such as cancer, additional testing may be recommended.

These tests may include the following:

  • Blood tests to look at gallbladder and liver function, and to look for tumor markers (CEA and CA 19-9).
  • Imaging tests including x-rays, ultrasound, CT scan, MRI, cholangiography, and/or angiography. These are used to identify suspicious looking areas that may be cancer, assist during a biopsy, to evaluate the extent of the cancer, to help make treatment decisions, to determine if treatment is working, or to look for signs of cancer recurrence following treatment.
  • Laparoscopy to help with surgery planning and determine the extent of the cancer. It may also be used to remove the gallbladder.
  • A biopsy to evaluate a tissue sample to determine if cancer is present.

Treatment of Gallbladder Cancer

There are various options for treatment of gallbladder cancer. Your oncologist will develop a treatment plan based on your cancer stage and goals of treatment.

When cancer is found early, and it hasn’t spread to surrounding areas or to other parts of the body, surgery may provide a cure. However, all of the cancer needs to be removed.

Typically, chemotherapy and radiation are used after surgery to ensure that all of the cancer cells have been destroyed. Additionally, chemotherapy and radiation may be used when surgery isn’t an option to help prolong life and manage symptoms.

When gallbladder cancer is advanced, or when surgery is not an option, palliative care is offered to patients and may include pain medications, anti-nausea medications, oxygen therapy, and/or placing a stent in the bile duct to allow it to drain.

In Conclusion

If you’re experiencing any gallbladder cancer symptoms, speak to your physician to determine what is causing your symptoms. An early and accurate diagnosis can help to improve treatment outcomes, improve quality of life, and possibly extend your life.