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Gallbladder Cancer

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What is Gallbladder Cancer?

Gallbladder cancer occurs when normal cells in the gallbladder change and grow uncontrollably, forming a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous, meaning it can spread to other parts of the body). Primary gallbladder cancer is cancer that starts in the gallbladder, as opposed to cancer that begins somewhere else in the body and spreads to the gallbladder.

About the gallbladder

The gallbladder is a pear-shaped organ located just under the liver. The gallbladder stores bile, a fluid made by the liver that helps to digest fats. Bile is released from the gallbladder through a tube, called the common bile duct, as food is broken down in the stomach and intestines.


The gallbladder's wall is made up of three main layers of tissue: the mucosa, which is the innermost layer and covers the wall of the gallbladder; the muscularis, the middle layer of smooth muscle; and the serosa, the outer layer. Primary gallbladder cancer begins in the inner layer and spreads into the outer layers as it grows.

Symptoms and Signs

People with gallbladder cancer may experience the following symptoms or signs. Sometimes, people with gallbladder cancer do not show any of these symptoms. Or, these symptoms may be caused by a medical condition that is not cancer, such as a stomach virus. If you are concerned about a symptom or sign on this list, please talk with your doctor.

Gallbladder cancer is usually not found at an early stage because the gallbladder is located deep inside the body. Therefore, gallbladder cancer can be difficult to detect during routine physical examinations. Sometimes, gallbladder cancers are found unexpectedly after removal of the gallbladder for other reasons, such as gallstones. When symptoms do occur, they include the following:

Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)

Abdominal pain

Nausea and vomiting


Lumps in the abdomen


Your doctor will ask you questions about the symptoms you are experiencing to help find out the cause of the problem, called a diagnosis. This may include how long you've been experiencing the symptom(s) and how often.

If cancer is diagnosed, relieving symptoms and side effects remains an important part of cancer care and treatment. This may also be called symptom management, palliative care, or supportive care. Be sure to talk with your health care team about symptoms you experience, including any new symptoms or a change in symptoms.

Risk Factors

A risk factor is anything that increases a person's chance of developing cancer. Although risk factors often influence the development of cancer, most do not directly cause cancer. Some people with several risk factors never develop cancer, while others with no known risk factors do. However, knowing your risk factors and talking about them with your doctor may help you make more informed lifestyle and health care choices.

The following factors can raise a person's risk of developing gallbladder cancer:

Gallstones. Gallstones, the most common risk factor for gallbladder cancer, are rock-like formations of cholesterol and bile salts that can occur in the gallbladder or bile duct. Gallstones are the most common digestive disease in the United States, and between 75% and 90% of people with gallbladder cancer have a history of gallstones. However, only a small proportion of people with gallstones develop gallbladder cancer.

Gallbladder polyps. This type of polyp is a growth that sometimes forms when small gallstones get embedded in the gallbladder wall. Gallbladder polyps bulge inward from the inner gallbladder wall. Some polyps may also be caused by inflammation. Doctors often recommend gallbladder removal for people who have polyps larger than one centimeter because these are more likely to be cancerous.

Age. Most people diagnosed with gallbladder cancer are older than 70.

Gender. Women are about twice as likely to develop gallbladder cancer as men.

Ethnicity. Mexican Americans and Native Americans, particularly in the southwestern United States, are more likely to develop gallbladder cancer than the general population.

Smoking. Tobacco use may increase the risk of gallbladder cancer.

Family history. A family history of gallbladder cancer slightly increases a person's risk of developing gallbladder cancer.


Doctors use many tests to diagnose cancer and find out if it has metastasized (spread). Some tests may also determine which treatments may be the most effective. For most types of cancer, a biopsy is the only way to make a definitive diagnosis of cancer. If a biopsy is not possible, the doctor may suggest other tests that will help make a diagnosis. Imaging tests may be used to find out whether the cancer has metastasized. Your doctor may consider these factors when choosing a diagnostic test:

Age and medical condition

Type of cancer suspected

Severity of symptoms

Previous test results

In addition to a physical examination, the following tests may be used to diagnose gallbladder cancer:

Biopsy. A biopsy is the removal of a small amount of tissue for examination under a microscope. Other tests can suggest that cancer is present, but only a biopsy can make a definite diagnosis. The sample removed from the biopsy is analyzed by a pathologist (a doctor who specializes in interpreting laboratory tests and evaluating cells, tissues, and organs to diagnose disease).

The sample of tissue can be taken one of several ways: during a surgery; with a minimally invasive surgical technique known as laparoscopy (see below); or with a fine needle or thick needle aspiration (a core biopsy), using a computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan or ultrasound to guide the needle placement. In some cases, a biopsy is done by passing an endoscope (a thin, lighted, flexible tube) through the mouth, past the stomach, and into the first part of the intestine. A tool can be passed from the endoscope through the intestinal wall to remove a sample of tissue.

Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). This test allows the doctor to see inside the body. The person is lightly sedated, and the doctor inserts an endoscope through the mouth, down the esophagus, and into the stomach and small bowel. A smaller tube or catheter is passed through the endoscope and into the bile ducts. Dye is injected into the ducts, and the doctor takes x-rays that can show whether a tumor is present in the area around the bile ducts. A plastic or metal stent can be placed across an obstructed bile duct during ERCP to help relieve jaundice if it is present. An experienced gastroenterologist (a doctor who specializes in the function and disorders of the gastrointestinal tract) should perform this procedure. This procedure is used more commonly to find cancer of the bile duct than to find gallbladder cancer, but it may also be used if the gallbladder cancer spreads and blocks the bile ducts.

X-ray. An x-ray is a way to create a picture of the structures inside of the body using a small amount of radiation. The patient may be asked to swallow barium, which coats the digestive tract, to enhance the image on the x-ray (called a barium swallow).

Percutaneous cholangiography. In this procedure, a thin needle is inserted through the skin and into the gallbladder area. A dye is injected through the needle so that a high-contrast image will show up on x-rays. By looking at the x-rays, the doctor may be able to see whether there is a tumor in the gallbladder. More commonly, a cholangiography provides images of the bile ducts, and it may not show a tumor in the gallbladder. However, the procedure is excellent in detecting the site of a blocked bile duct.

Laparoscopy. Laparoscopy uses an endoscope to look at the gallbladder and other internal organs. The tube is inserted through a small incision in the abdomen.

Blood tests. The doctor may take samples of blood to check for abnormal levels of bilirubin and other substances. Bilirubin is a chemical that may reach high levels in people with gallbladder cancer due to blockage of the common bile duct by a tumor.

CT scan. A CT scan creates a three-dimensional picture of the inside of the body with an x-ray machine. A computer then combines these images into a detailed, cross-sectional view that shows any abnormalities or tumors. Sometimes, a contrast medium (a special dye) is injected into a patient's vein to provide better detail.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI uses magnetic fields, not x-rays, to produce detailed images of the body and can be used to find out whether the cancer has spread outside the gallbladder. A contrast medium may be injected into a patient's vein to create a clearer picture.

Ultrasound. An ultrasound uses sound waves to create a picture of the internal organs. Tumors generate different echoes of the sound waves than normal tissue; thus, when the waves are bounced back to a computer, creating images, the doctor can locate a mass inside the body.

Positron emission tomography (PET) scan. A PET scan is a way to create pictures of organs and tissues inside the body. A small amount of a radioactive substance is injected into a patient's body. This substance is absorbed mainly by organs and tissues that use the most energy. Because cancer tends to use energy actively, it absorbs more of the radioactive substance. A scanner then detects this substance to produce images of the inside of the body.

After these diagnostic tests are done, your doctor will review all of the results with you. If the diagnosis is cancer, these results also help the doctor describe the cancer; this is called staging.


Staging is a way of describing where the cancer is located, if or where it has spread, and whether it is affecting the functions of other organs in the body. Doctors use diagnostic tests to determine the cancer's stage, so staging may not be complete until all the tests are finished. Knowing the stage helps the doctor to decide what kind of treatment is best and can help predict a patient's prognosis (chance of recovery). There are different stage descriptions for different types of cancer.

One tool that doctors use to describe the stage is the TNM system. This system judges three factors: the tumor itself, the lymph nodes around the tumor, and if the tumor has spread to other parts of the body. The results are combined to determine the stage of cancer for each person. There are five stages: stage 0 (zero) and stages I through IV (one through four). The stage provides a common way of describing the cancer, so doctors can work together to plan the best treatments.

TNM is an abbreviation for tumor (T), node (N), and metastasis (M). Doctors look at these three factors to determine the stage of cancer:

How large is the primary tumor, and where is it located?(Tumor, T)

Has the tumor spread to the lymph nodes? (Node, N)

Has the cancer metastasized to other parts of the body?(Metastasis, M)

Tumor. Using the TNM system, the "T" plus a letter or number (0 to 4) is used to describe the amount of cancer found in the gallbladder. Some stages are also divided into smaller groups that help describe the tumor in even more detail. This helps the doctor develop the best treatment plan for each patient. Specific tumor stage information is listed below.

TX: The primary tumor cannot be evaluated.

T0: No evidence of cancer was found in the gallbladder.

Tis: This refers to carcinoma (cancer) in situ, which means that the tumor remains in a pre-invasive state and its spread, if any, is very confined.

T1: The tumor is only in the gallbladder and has only invaded the lamina propria (a type of connective tissue found under the thin layer of tissue covering a mucous membrane) or muscle layer.

T1a: The tumor has invaded the lamina propria.

T1b: The tumor has invaded the muscle layer.

T2: The tumor has invaded the perimuscular connective tissue (the layer between the muscle layer and the serosa) but has not extended beyond the serosa (the outer layer) or into the liver.

T3: The tumor extends beyond the gallbladder and/or has invaded the liver and/or one other adjacent organ or structure, such as the stomach, duodenum (part of the small bowel), colon, or pancreas.

T4: The tumor has invaded the main portal vein or hepatic artery or has invaded more than one organ or structure beyond the liver.

Node. The “N” in the TNM staging system stands for lymph nodes, the tiny, bean-shaped organs that help fight infection. Lymph nodes near the gallbladder are called regional lymph nodes.

NX: The regional lymph nodes cannot be evaluated.

N0 (N plus zero): There is no regional lymph node metastasis.

N1: There is regional lymph node metastasis.

N2: There is more distant lymph node metastasis.

Distant metastasis. The “M” in the TNM system indicates whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

M0 (M plus zero): There is no distant metastasis.

M1: There is metastasis to one or more other parts of the body.

Cancer stage grouping

Doctors assign the stage of the cancer by combining the T, N, and M classifications.

Stage 0: Describes cancer in situ (Tis, N0, M0).

Stage I: A tumor is only in the gallbladder and has not spread (T1, N0, M0).

Stage II: A tumor has extended to the perimuscular connective tissue but has not spread elsewhere (T2, N0, M0).

Stage IIIA: A tumor has spread beyond the gallbladder but not to nearby arteries or veins. It has not spread to any lymph nodes or other parts of the body (T3, N0, M0).

Stage IIIB: A tumor of any size has spread to nearby lymph nodes but not to nearby arteries and/or veins or to other parts of the body (T1, T2, T3; N1; M0).

Stage IVA: A tumor has spread to nearby arteries, veins, and/or nearby lymph nodes, but it has not spread to other parts of the body (T4, N0 or N1, M0).

Stage IVB: Describes any tumor that has spread to other parts of the body (any T, any N, M1) or any tumor that has distant lymph node spread, even if it has not spread to distant organs (any T, N2, M0).

Recurrent: Recurrent gallbladder cancer is cancer that comes back after treatment. If there is a recurrence, the cancer may need to be staged again (called re-staging) using the system above.

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