Gallbladder cancer is a rare form of cancer that often doesn’t cause signs or symptoms in the early stages. You’re more at risk of gallbladder cancer if you have conditions like gallstones or gallbladder inflammation. Most cases aren’t caught until it has spread and the prognosis is poor. Treatments include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
Gallbladder cancer occurs when malignant (cancer) cells grow in your gallbladder. Your gallbladder is a pear-shaped organ in the upper right of your abdomen, just under your liver. It stores and delivers bile, a fluid your liver secretes to help you digest fats in foods you eat.
Gallbladder cancer begins in the innermost layer of your gallbladder, called the mucosal layer, and spreads outward. It often doesn’t cause signs or symptoms in the early stages. Instead, healthcare providers often find the cancer by chance after gallbladder surgery.
The cure rate for gallbladder cancer is excellent if it’s in the early stages and healthcare providers can remove it with surgery. Unfortunately, most people don’t receive a diagnosis until the cancer has spread beyond their gallbladder. Gallbladder cancer is difficult to treat at this point.
Gallbladder cancer is rare in the U.S., affecting about 2 people per 100,000. It’s more common in India, Japan, Korea, Poland and certain countries in South America. These countries have higher rates of gallstones and other conditions that are risk factors for gallbladder cancer.
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Gallbladder cancer is difficult to detect because symptoms don’t show up in the early stages. When symptoms appear, they’re similar to more common conditions, like gallstones or a blockage in a bile duct.
Gallbladder cancer occurs when healthy cells become malignant cells that grow and multiply out of control. This can happen when there are changes, or mutations, in the genetic material that tells healthy cells how to behave. With gallbladder cancer, these genetic mutations occur over time (acquired). You don’t inherit them from your biological parents.
Scientists don’t know what causes cells to become cancer cells in the first place. But they’ve identified several factors that may increase your risk.
In the U.S., gallbladder cancer is more common among certain groups, including people who are:
Other risk factors include having:
It’s also possible that smoking and exposure to certain chemicals used to create textiles and rubbers can increase your risk.
Because there are rarely signs or symptoms in the early stages, and those symptoms resemble other conditions, providers often diagnose gallbladder cancer late. They often discover it because you have gallstones or need your gallbladder removed.
If your provider suspects you might have gallbladder cancer, they’ll examine you and ask about your medical history. Then, they’ll perform tests.
Tests may include lab tests, imaging procedures and minor surgeries.
Lab tests detect substances in your blood that may be signs of cancer.
Imaging tests allow healthcare providers to look for cancer and signs of cancer spread.
Surgical procedures allow healthcare providers direct access to tissue that contains cancer cells.
Cancer staging allows your healthcare provider to determine whether cancer has spread (metastasized) beyond its original (primary) location. To determine the extent of cancer spread, your provider will assign a number (zero through four) to your cancer. The higher the number, the more the cancer has spread throughout your body.
The stages of gallbladder cancer are:
Healthcare providers describe Stage 1 gallbladder cancer as local, meaning cancer hasn’t spread beyond your gallbladder. Stage 1 cancers are potentially curable. Stages 2 through 4 cancers are much more challenging to treat.
Gallbladder cancer spreads from the inner layer of your gallbladder to the outer layers. Eventually, it may spread to nearby lymph nodes or organs, such as your liver and bile ducts. Metastatic gallbladder cancer can travel to other organs through your lymphatic system or bloodstream.
The cancer stage affects treatment and treatment goals. With early-stage cancers, the goal is often to remove the cancer, so it doesn’t return. If it’s more advanced, treatment goals may include extending your life and managing symptoms.
Early-stage gallbladder cancer that your provider can remove through surgery has the best treatment outcomes.
Cancers that can’t be removed via surgery (unresectable), have returned (recurrent) or spread (metastatic) aren’t curable. Treatments like radiation therapy and chemotherapy won’t eliminate the cancer, but they can improve your symptoms and extend your life. Similarly, while surgeries can’t remove the cancer, you may need procedures to relieve symptoms if tumors create blockages in your digestive tract.
You may be eligible to take part in a clinical trial. A clinical trial is a study that tests new treatments and new approaches to current treatments. Current treatments for gallbladder cancer being tested in clinical trials include:
Ask your healthcare provider if you’re a candidate for a clinical trial.
It’s also important to plan for potential chemotherapy and radiation side effects. Predicting your side effects is impossible because everyone’s treatment response is different. Still, your healthcare provider can explain possible side effects to watch out for based on your specific treatment plan.
Gallbladder cancer can’t be prevented. You can do your best to avoid risk factors of gallbladder cancer. For example, you can work with your healthcare provider to maintain a healthy weight for you. Still, there’s no guarantee that your actions will prevent gallbladder cancer.
The prognosis for gallbladder cancer tends to be poor because it’s not usually diagnosed until it’s advanced. Only about 20% of gallbladder cancers are diagnosed in the early stages. The five-year survival rate for people with metastasized gallbladder cancer is 2%. The survival rate for localized gallbladder cancer is much higher, at 66%.
Yes. But gallbladder cancer can only be cured if caught and treated early. To cure gallbladder cancer, your healthcare provider must remove it before it spreads to other organs.
Be sure you understand your diagnosis, including all the benefits and risks associated with treatment. Ask questions about your prognosis, too. Your cancer care team is your best resource for explaining likely treatment outcomes.
Connecting with palliative care professionals can help you manage your symptoms. Palliative care can help you navigate your diagnosis. They attend to your comfort and needs regardless of your prognosis. Ask your healthcare provider if they recommend palliative care.
You may want to go to your healthcare provider with a list of questions you have about gallbladder cancer. Possible questions include:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Gallbladder cancer is a rare and very serious disease. Be sure to see your healthcare provider as soon as possible if you experience the symptoms of gallbladder cancer. While other cancers show signs early on, remember that gallbladder cancer may not be obvious until it’s in the later stages. It’s vital to get treated as soon as possible.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/13/2023.
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