Gallbladder Cancer: What to Know

The gallbladder is part of your digestive system. It’s a small, pear-shaped pouch located right under the liver, in the upper right part of your abdomen. Its function is to store the bile, a fluid that breaks down fat, that the liver makes.

Gallbladder cancer is a rare disease.

What Causes It?

Doctors aren’t sure. They do know it forms when DNA -- the code that tells cells what to do -- in healthy organ cells changes.

These changes, or mutations, make cells grow out of control and continue to live when normal cells would typically die. The cells form into a cancerous tumor that can grow and spread beyond the gallbladder.

Even when this happens, the organ’s tucked-away location can make it hard for your doctor to find cancer there.

The most common type of gallbladder cancer is called adenocarcinoma. It starts in the gland cells that line the inside of the gallbladder.

What Are the Symptoms?

There may not be specific ones in early stages of gallbladder cancer. This can make it harder to diagnose.

Late stage gallbladder cancer has many specific symptoms. They include:

See your doctor if notice any of these.

Who’s Likely to Get It?

You’re more likely to get gallbladder cancer if you’re female or Native American. Your chances also increase with age. Weight can play a large part, too. Obesity increases your chances for gallbladder cancer.

A history of gallstones or other gallbladder-related problems, like chronic inflammation, can lead to gallbladder cancer. But that’s rare.

Diagnosis

You doctor will use a wide range of tests to see if you have gallbladder cancer. Usually, he’ll start with a complete physical exam and get your medical history.

He might run some blood tests and check your other organs. Sometimes, they can give clues about whether there are problems with your gallbladder.

He’ll probably do some imaging tests, like an ultrasound, MRI, CT Scan, or X-rays. All of these create pictures so your doctor can study your gallbladder in detail.

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How Is It Treated?

Doctors typically use these test results to place your condition into one of two distinct groups:

  • Resectable cancers. This means your doctor believes surgery can completely remove the disease. But this will only work if the cancer hasn’t spread far beyond your gallbladder.
  • Unresectable cancers. This means your doctor feels the disease has spread too far or is too hard to remove. The cancer may have spread into the major blood vessels, both sides of the liver, the abdominal cavity, or other organs.

Chemotherapy (the use of medications, also called “chemo”) and radiation, which uses X-rays and other high-energy waves and particles, can help manage the spread of the cancer, too.

You might want to talk to your doctor about taking part in a clinical trial. This means you’ll volunteer to try new medications or methods to treat the disease.

Can Gallbladder Cancer Be Cured?

It depends on what treatment options are available to you. Factors include:

  • The stage of the cancer, meaning how far it has spread
  • Whether the cancer can be completely removed by surgery
  • What kind of cancer cells are present
  • Whether the cancer has just been diagnosed or has come back

Most cases are found at late stages of the disease.

That’s why it’s so important to see your doctor if you have any of the symptoms listed above. The sooner you find cancer, the sooner you can treat it.

Can I Prevent It?

Not really. Many things that can contribute to it, like your sex, ethnic group, or your age can’t be controlled.

But there are ways you can lower your risk. The main one is to maintain a healthy weight by getting enough exercise. And eat a healthy diet. That’ll help fight disease and boost your health all around.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on November 15, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

Mayo Clinic: “Gallbladder Cancer.”

National Cancer Institute: “Gallbladder Cancer Treatment.”

American Cancer Society: “Gallbladder Cancer.”

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