Gallbladder cancer is uncommon.  However, as a serious disease, prompt attention is important if you are showing any of the symptoms. In many cases, a readily treatable problem such as gallstones is the cause.

What is gallbladder cancer?

Your gallbladder is an organ that is part of the digestive system. It is located under the liver and stores bile to aid in the digestion of fats. Polyps can form in the lining of this organ, and over time grow and change into cancer.  Left untreated, it can spread to the liver and elsewhere.

Gallbladder cancer is more common in women than in men. It is also more common in people with Native American ancestry. People with a history of gallbladder problems such as polyps, gallstones, or chronic gallbladder infection are more likely to develop gallbladder cancer. The same is true for having a family history of gallbladder or bile duct cancer.

Symptoms of gallbladder cancer

Gallbladder cancer is often symptomless until it is advanced. However, sometimes symptoms do show up earlier, which can result in quicker diagnosis and treatment. Symptoms of gallbladder cancer can include:

  • abdominal pain that is concentrated in the upper right part of the abdomen
  • nausea or vomiting
  • jaundice, a yellow appearance in the skin and the whites of the eyes
  • lumps or swelling in the abdomen
  • unexplained weight loss or appetite loss
  • dark urine
  • greasy or light-colored stools
  • fever
  • itchy skin

Diagnosing Gallbladder Cancer

Your doctor will perform a physical exam, discuss your symptoms and review your family history. Blood tests that evaluate your liver function can help determine the cause of symptoms you are experiencing. Imaging tests like ultrasound and CT scans provide a better look at the gallbladder and liver. Specific tests may be needed to evaluate the bile ducts if blockage is suspected.  Diagnostic laparoscopy can be used to obtain biopsies and determine the extent of spread to plan for the best treatment.

Gallbladder cancer treatment

The treatments available will depend on the stage of your cancer. Surgery is an option for early-stage gallbladder cancer. Your doctor will remove your gallbladder alone if cancer is confined to this area. If it has spread, a portion of your liver may be removed, as well.

Some studies have indicated that early stage cancer can be prevented from returning if surgery is paired with radiation or chemotherapy.

If your cancer is more advanced, your doctor may opt for a combination of chemotherapy, radiation and clinical trials.

Advanced gallbladder cancer can cause blocked bile ducts. Surgical procedures can provide relief by bypassing blockages. A stent may be used to hold a duct open or surgically reroute it, providing relief.