Gallbladder cancer is a rare form of cancer that starts in the inner tissue of the gallbladder. Some people may not notice any symptoms in the early stages.

This means gallbladder cancer is often hard to detect early, as doctors often do not discover it until a person develops symptoms in the later stages.

This article reviews gallbladder cancer, symptoms, risk factors, and more.

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Gallbladder cancer is a rare form of cancer that starts in the inner layers of gallbladder tissue.

The gallbladder is a small organ located under the liver in the upper part of the abdomen. It is responsible for storing bile that the liver produces to help break down fat during digestion.

Though the gallbladder can aid digestion, a person does not need it to live. This means a doctor can safely remove it from the body, and a person can live a normal lifespan.

Gallbladder cancer does not always cause symptoms in early, easily treatable stages. They often appear in more advanced stages when the cancer has spread.

When they do occur, symptoms may include:

Less common symptoms can include:

A person may develop one of several different types of gallbladder cancer. The cells in which the cancer starts determine the type of cancer.

About 90% of all cases start in the gland-like cells that line the inside of the gallbladder. Doctors call this type adenocarcinoma.

Here are three examples of adenocarcinoma subtypes:

  • nonpapillary adenocarcinoma — the most common subtype
  • papillary adenocarcinoma — less common than nonpapillary, this type is unlikely to spread to the lymph nodes or liver and has the best outlook
  • mucinous adenocarcinoma — the rarest subtype that starts in the cells that produce mucin, an ingredient in mucous

Less common types of gallbladder cancer include:

  • squamous cell carcinoma
  • carcinosarcoma
  • adenosquamous carcinoma

Like other types of cancer, doctors will talk about the stage of gallbladder cancer a person has. The stages range from Stage 0 to Stage IV. The higher the stage, the more serious the cancer is.

The table below shows each stage and its description according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

Stage numberStage description
0Cancer is only present in the inner layer of gallbladder tissue. It has not spread to deeper layers of the gallbladder, nearby lymph nodes, or other organs.
ICancer has spread from the inner layer to the lining or muscle layer of the gallbladder.
It has not spread to nearby lymph nodes or other organs.
IICancer has spread from the lining or muscle layer into the fibrous tissue that lines the abdomen.
Cancer has spread from the lining or muscle layer into the fibrous tissue on the side of the liver, but has not invaded the liver.
It has not spread to nearby lymph nodes or distant organs.
IIICancer has spread to the outer lining of the gallbladder, the liver, and/or 1 nearby organ such as the small intestine, stomach, pancreas, or colon. It has not spread to nearby lymph nodes or distant organs.
Cancer might or might not have spread outside the gallbladder to the liver and/or one other nearby organ, but it has not spread to the main blood vessels leading into the liver.
It has not spread to more than 3 nearby lymph nodes.
IVCancer has spread to one main blood vessel leading to the liver or 2 or more organs outside the liver. It might or might not have spread to 3 nearby lymph nodes. It has not spread to distant organs.
Cancer might or might not have spread outside the gallbladder, but it has spread to 4 or more nearby lymph nodes. It has not spread to distant organs.
Cancer might or might not have spread outside the gallbladder or to nearby lymph nodes.
It has spread to distant organs such as the liver, the abdomen lining, or the lungs.

The exact causes of gallbladder cancer are still unknown. According to the ACS, chronic gallbladder inflammation may be to blame.

Gallbladder inflammation can result from gallstones. These may cause the gallbladder to release bile more slowly, exposing the cells to the chemicals in bile for longer than usual, causing irritation.

Gallbladder inflammation can also result from abnormalities in the ducts that take fluids from the gallbladder and pancreas to the small intestine. These defects can also allow pancreatic juices to flow back into the gallbladder, causing irritation.

Chronic inflammation in the gallbladder may also contribute to changes in cell DNA. Mutations in cell DNA are a cause of cancerous tumors.

Some factors increase a person’s chances of developing gallbladder cancer. Some known risk factors for the cancer include:

Other possible factors include smoking and exposure to certain chemicals. The connection between these factors is not as clear as some other risk factors.

Gender and ethnicity

Gallbladder cancer is more common among females than males. According to a 2019 study, the reason for this is unknown, but a possible reason is that females tend to live longer.

Another risk factor for gallbladder cancer is ethnicity. Mexican Americans, Latin Americans, and Native Americans have the highest risk in the U.S., and African Americans have the lowest risk.

According to the study, this may be due to differences in genetics, lifestyle, diet, and limited access to healthcare. However, the reasons are largely unknown.

Another risk factor is geographical location. Compared with the U.S., gallbladder cancer is more common in Central Europe, India, Pakistan, and South America.

Even with successful treatment, gallbladder cancer can return. If a tumor returns, it may cause:

Early detection of gallbladder cancer is often difficult. In part, this is due to the location of the gallbladder. It resides under the liver, so routine examinations may not detect small tumors.

Also, no blood or diagnostic tools exist to detect the cancer. In most cases, a person only discovers gallbladder cancer when it has grown large enough to cause symptoms.

When a person visits their doctor due to symptoms, their doctor will likely discuss the person’s symptoms and medical history. They will likely perform a physical examination.

If the doctor suspects gallbladder cancer, they will likely recommend different tests to help determine if cancer is present. Tests will likely include:

Doctors have a few different methods to help treat and potentially cure gallbladder cancer.

Surgery offers the highest chance of successful treatment of gallbladder cancer. A doctor may recommend a radical cholecystectomy if the cancer has not spread past the gallbladder.

In this procedure, a surgeon removes the entire gallbladder, surrounding lymph nodes, and some of the surrounding tissue. If the cancer has spread beyond the gallbladder, they may increase how much tissue they take.

Other treatment options are available if surgery is unsuccessful or not recommended. They may include:

A person cannot directly prevent most types of gallbladder cancer. Many risk factors come from aspects a person cannot change, such as age or ethnicity.

However, a person can take some steps that may reduce their risk, such as:

Several factors can affect a person’s overall outlook. Some common influences include:

  • successful removal of entire cancer during surgery
  • stage of the cancer
  • a newly diagnosed case versus recurrence
  • the type of gallbladder cancer

According to the ACS, the 5-year survival rate for different stages of gallbladder cancer is as follows:

  • Local: 66%
  • Regional, meaning it has spread to local lymph nodes or surrounding tissue: 28%
  • Distant, meaning it has spread to other organs in the body: 2%
  • Combined regional and distant: 19%

These statistics are from 2011 to 2017. The current survival rate may differ due to improvements in treatments.

Gallbladder cancer is a rare form of cancer that starts in the gallbladder.

No tests or screenings can check for gallbladder cancer. It also does not typically cause symptoms until later stages.

Gallbladder cancer is more common among females and those of Mexican American, Latin American, and Native American descent.

Treatment often involves the removal of the gallbladder, though it may also include radiation or chemotherapy. A person’s highest chance of success happens when doctors detect the cancer early.

Some behaviors can reduce a person’s risk of developing gallbladder cancer, such as eating a healthy, balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and exercising regularly.