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Gallbladder Cancer: Overview

What is gallbladder cancer?

Cancer starts when cells change (mutate) and grow out of control. The changed (abnormal) cells often grow to form a lump or mass called a tumor. Cancer cells can also grow into (invade) nearby areas. They can spread to other parts of the body, too. This is called metastasis.

Gallbladder cancer is rare. It starts in the cells that form the gallbladder. This organ stores bile, a fluid made in the liver to help digest fats in our food. It connects to the liver and the small intestine. 

Who is at risk for gallbladder cancer? 

A risk factor is anything that may increase your chance of having a disease. The exact cause of someone’s cancer may not be known. But risk factors can make it more likely for a person to have cancer. Some risk factors may not be in your control. But others may be things you can change. 

The risk factors for gallbladder cancer include:

  • Gallstones

  • Calcium deposits in the gallbladder (seen on an X-ray)

  • Being a woman

  • Obesity

  • Older age

  • Family members with this cancer

  • Being Mexican American or Native American

  • Bile duct cysts

  • Bile duct reflux

  • Gallbladder polyps

  • A disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis

  • Typhoid infection

Talk with your healthcare provider about your risk factors for gallbladder cancer and what you can do about them.

Can gallbladder cancer be prevented?

There is no sure way to prevent gallbladder cancer. Some risk factors can be controlled or treated to help reduce risk.

Are there screening tests for gallbladder cancer?  

There are currently no regular screening tests for gallbladder cancer. Screening tests are done to check for disease in people who don’t have symptoms.

What are the symptoms of gallbladder cancer?

You can have gallbladder cancer with no symptoms. Symptoms tend to start when the cancer is big or has spread. Common signs of gallbladder cancer include:

  • Belly pain or cramping

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Yellow eyes and skin (jaundice)

  • Lumps in the belly

  • Bloating

  • Fever

Many of these may be caused by other health problems. But it's important to see a healthcare provider if you have these symptoms. Only a healthcare provider can tell if you have cancer.

How is gallbladder cancer diagnosed?

The most common way to find gallbladder cancer is when symptoms cause a person to see their healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider will do a physical exam with a focus on the belly. Blood tests will be done. You will need some imaging tests, such as an ultrasound, MRI scan, or CT scan, to look at the inside of your belly.

Special scopes can be put into your body to get a closer look at the gallbladder. A scope is a long, thin, flexible tube with a lighted camera on the end. Small bits of tumor tissue can be taken out through the scope. This is called a biopsy. The pieces of tissue are checked for cancer cells. A biopsy is the only way to know if a lump or change is cancer. Your healthcare team can tell you how soon to expect results.

After a diagnosis of gallbladder cancer, you'll need more tests. These help your healthcare providers learn more about your overall health and the cancer. They're used to find out the stage of the cancer. The stage is how much cancer there is and how far it has spread (metastasized) in your body. It's one of the most important things to know when deciding how to treat the cancer.

Once your cancer is staged, your healthcare provider will talk with you about what the stage means for your treatment. Be sure to ask your provider to explain the details of your cancer to you in a way you can understand.

How is gallbladder cancer treated?

Your treatment choices depend on the type of gallbladder cancer you have, test results, and the stage of the cancer. Other things to think about are if the cancer can be removed with surgery and your overall health. The goal of treatment may be to cure you, control the cancer, or help ease problems caused by the cancer. Talk with your healthcare team about your treatment choices, the goals of treatment, and what the risks and side effects may be.

Types of treatment for cancer are either local or systemic. Local treatments remove, destroy, or control cancer cells in one area. Surgery and radiation are local treatments. Systemic treatment is used to destroy or control cancer cells that may have traveled around your body. When taken by pill or injection, chemotherapy is a systemic treatment.

You may have just one treatment or a combination of treatments. Treatment for gallbladder cancer may include:

  • Surgery

  • Radiation

  • Chemotherapy

Other treatments may be available in clinical trials. Talk with your healthcare providers about your treatment choices. Make a list of questions. Think about the benefits and possible side effects of each choice. Talk about your concerns with your provider before making a decision.

What are treatment side effects? 

Cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy and radiation, can damage normal cells. This can cause side effects, such as hair loss, mouth sores, and vomiting. Talk with your healthcare provider about side effects linked to your treatment. There are often ways to manage them. There may be things you can do and medicines you can take to help prevent or control many treatment side effects.

Surgery for gallbladder cancer is very complex. Ask what you can expect to happen and what side effects you may have.

Coping with gallbladder cancer

Many people feel worried, depressed, and stressed when dealing with cancer. Getting treatment for cancer can be hard on your mind and body. Keep talking with your healthcare team about any problems or concerns you have. Work together to ease the effect of cancer and its symptoms on your daily life.

Here are tips:

  • Talk with your family or friends.

  • Ask your healthcare team or social worker for help.

  • Speak with a counselor.

  • Talk with a spiritual advisor, such as a minister or rabbi.

  • Ask your healthcare team about medicines for depression or anxiety.

  • Keep socially active.

  • Join a cancer support group in person or online.

Cancer treatment is also hard on the body. To help yourself stay healthier, try to:

  • Eat a healthy diet, with a focus on high-protein foods.

  • Drink plenty of water, fruit juices, and other liquids.

  • Keep physically active.

  • Rest as much as needed.

  • Talk with your healthcare team about ways to manage treatment side effects.

  • Take your medicines as directed by your team.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Your healthcare provider will talk with you about when to call. You may be told to call if you have any of these:

  • New symptoms or symptoms that get worse

  • Signs of an infection, such as a fever

  • Side effects of treatment that affect your daily function or don’t get better with treatment

Ask your healthcare provider what signs to watch for, and when to call. Also be sure you know how to get help after office hours and on weekends and holidays.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.

Online Medical Reviewer: Jessica Gotwals RN BSN MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: Rita Sather RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Todd Gersten MD
Date Last Reviewed: 2/1/2023
© 2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.
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