Gallbladder cancer is caused by an abnormal and uncontrolled growth of cells in the wall of your gallbladder.
Your gallbladder is a small pear-shaped pouch in the upper right part of your abdomen (tummy). It stores bile that is produced by your liver. Bile is a digestive fluid that helps break down fatty food and is carried from your gallbladder to your bowel through a tube called the bile duct. Bile is yellow-green in colour because it contains a substance called bilirubin. If bile isn't removed from your blood, it builds up and your skin will turn a yellow colour. This is known as jaundice.
Gallbladder cancer is rare in the UK – only around 670 people are diagnosed each year. It's more common in countries such as Chile, Japan and India than in European countries.
Gallbladder cancer mostly affects people over 65. It’s more common in women – seven in every 10 people diagnosed with gallbladder cancer are women.
There are several different types of gallbladder cancer. The most common is adenocarcinoma, which starts in the gland cells of your gallbladder lining.
You may not have any symptoms during the early stages of gallbladder cancer. Some early-stage gallbladder cancers are found by chance – for example, if a doctor examines your gallbladder after it has been removed to treat gallstones.
Later symptoms of gallbladder cancer include:
These symptoms aren’t always caused by gallbladder cancer but if you have them, see your GP.
The exact reasons why you may develop gallbladder cancer aren't fully understood at present. However, you may be more at risk of developing it if you:
Your GP will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history. Your GP may refer you to a gastroenterologist, a doctor who specialises in identifying and treating conditions that affect the digestive system, or a surgeon who specialises in liver cancer, for further tests. These tests may include the following.
If you're found to have cancer, you may need to have other tests to check if the cancer has spread. The process of finding out the stage of a cancer is called staging.
Your treatment for gallbladder cancer will depend on how advanced the cancer is.
This is the main type of treatment for gallbladder cancer. If your cancer hasn't spread beyond the wall of your gallbladder, you will need to have your gallbladder removed in a cholecystectomy operation. However, if your cancer has spread beyond your gallbladder, your surgeon may also need to remove tissues to which the cancer has spread to. These may include lymph nodes, part of your liver and depending on how much your cancer has spread, other organs such as your pancreas or part of your bowel.
If your cancer has spread to surrounding tissues (such as your liver, stomach or lymph nodes in the area) and your surgeon can't remove it, he or she will aim to relieve your symptoms and prevent jaundice. This is called palliative therapy. Your surgeon may insert a stent (a small hollow tube) to help bile drain properly into your digestive system. Your surgeon may insert the stent through an endoscope or through your skin, passing through your liver. Alternatively, your surgeon may perform a bypass operation to prevent your bile duct from becoming blocked. In this operation, your surgeon will cut your gallbladder or bile duct above where it’s blocked and reconnect it to your small bowel. This will allow bile to go around and bypass the cancer.
Non-surgical treatments include the following.
Being diagnosed with cancer can be distressing for you and your family. An important part of cancer treatment is having support to deal with the emotional aspects as well as the physical symptoms. Specialist cancer doctors and nurses are experts in providing the care and support you need, and may also visit you at home. If you have more advanced cancer, further care is available to you in hospices or at home.
Produced by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Heath Information Team, June 2012.
For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
Ask an expert
Our cancer experts can help answer any questions you may have. Whether your question is about reducing your risk of cancer or the treatment options available, we are here to help.
This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.
Award winning UK