Gallbladder cancer is a rare, aggressive form of cancer that can be difficult to diagnose due to a lack of symptoms in its early stages. Someone with a family history of gallbladder cancer may be at a higher risk of developing the condition.

The gallbladder is a small organ in the abdomen responsible for storing bile the liver produces to help a person’s body digest fat.

In this article, we will discuss gallbladder cancer and genetics, other potential risk factors for the condition, its treatments, and when to speak with a healthcare professional.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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A parent cannot pass any type of cancer directly down to their child. However, if certain genetic mutations are present in the DNA of a parent’s egg or sperm cells, a person may inherit these changes that may increase their risk of developing certain types of cancer.

However, there is little research to suggest that gene changes a person inherits from their parents are a cause of gallbladder cancer.

There may be a link, though, between family members developing gallbladder cancer. Familial risk describes when at least two family members receive a gallbladder cancer diagnosis.

According to a 2022 study, there is a familial risk of gallbladder cancer. A person is approximately 2.7 times more likely to develop gallbladder cancer if someone else in their family has received a diagnosis when compared to someone who does not have a family member with the condition.

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One of the most significant risk factors for developing gallbladder cancer is long-term inflammation of the gallbladder tissue. Many of the risk factors for developing gallbladder cancer are related to this type of inflammation.

Some of the risk factors for developing gallbladder cancer include:

  • Gallstones: According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), gallstones are the most common risk factor for gallbladder cancer. Most people with gallstones will never develop gallbladder cancer. However, as many as 4 out of 5 adults in the United States with gallbladder cancer also have gallstones at the time of diagnosis.
  • Porcelain gallbladder: In this condition, the wall of a person’s gallbladder becomes covered with calcium deposits. Having porcelain gallbladder highly increases someone’s risk of developing gallbladder cancer.
  • Lifestyle factors: These include obesity, smoking, and eating a diet high in carbohydrates.
  • Chemical exposure: People working in the rubber and textile industries may experience exposure to chemicals that increase their risk of developing gallbladder cancer. Additionally, exposure to nitrosamines, which may be present in some foods and medications, may contribute to the development of gallbladder cancer.
  • Age: Gallbladder cancer can affect a person at any age. However, the average age a person in the U.S. receives a gallbladder cancer diagnosis is at 72 years old, and most people receive a diagnosis at 65 years or older.
  • Sex: Gallbladder cancer, gallstones, and gallbladder inflammation are all more common in females. In the U.S., gallbladder cancer is 3–4 times more likely to develop in females than males.
  • Ethnicity: Mexican, Latin American, and Native American people are at a greater risk of developing gallbladder cancer in the U.S.
  • Choledochal cysts: These are sacs of bile in the bile ducts that can eventually lead to gallbladder cancer.
  • Gallbladder polyps: These are growths that occur in the walls of the gallbladder. Polyps that measure more than a centimeter may be cancerous.
  • Primary sclerosing cholangitis: In this condition, inflammation of the bile ducts causes the formation of scar tissue.
  • Typhoid: A type of Salmonella bacteria causes typhoid. A person may be more at risk of developing gallbladder cancer if they have a chronic Salmonella infection, or if the bacteria is still present in their body after recovering from typhoid.

There are several treatment options available for gallbladder cancer, depending on how much cancer is present in the body and if it has spread. Some treatments can include:

  • Surgery: A surgeon may need to remove a person’s gallbladder to get rid of all the cancer cells. Someone may also require surgery to remove parts of the bile duct, liver, and lymph nodes if the cancer has spread.
  • Chemotherapy: A person may need this treatment to kill gallbladder cancer cells or stop them from dividing.
  • Radiation therapy: This type of therapy may kill gallbladder cancer cells or stop them from growing.

There are several new treatments still in the clinical trial phase, so scientists are still investigating their efficacy for treating gallbladder cancer. Some of these treatments include immunotherapy, radiation sensitizers, and targeted therapy.

A person should speak with a healthcare professional if they would like to find out more or take part in clinical trials for gallbladder cancer.

Gallbladder cancer does not typically present any symptoms in the early stages, which can make it difficult for doctors to diagnose.

However, earlier detection of gallbladder cancer can mean a person has a much greater chance of successful treatment. Therefore, a person should contact a doctor right away if they experience symptoms of gallbladder cancer, including:

Gallbladder cancer is a rare condition, so another condition may be causing a person’s symptoms. A healthcare professional can perform diagnostic tests to work out the underlying cause of the symptoms and recommend appropriate treatment, if necessary.

A person cannot directly pass gallbladder cancer to their child. However, a person with a family member who has, or has had, gallbladder cancer may be more likely to develop the disease.

Inflammation of the gallbladder is the greatest risk factor for developing gallbladder cancer. The most common cause of gallbladder inflammation is gallstones. However, many conditions can cause inflammation of the gallbladder and contribute to the development of gallbladder cancer.

A person should contact a doctor right away if they experience any symptoms of gallbladder cancer, such as jaundice and pain in the upper right abdomen.