Gallbladder cancer

Gallbladder cancer is a rare cancer that affects the digestive system.

The gallbladder is a small, pouch-like organ found underneath the liver. It stores bile, a liquid produced by the liver that helps break down fatty foods.

There are different types of gallbladder cancer, depending on which cells are affected.

For example:

  • adenocarcinoma – the most common type, which affects the gland cells in the gallbladder lining
  • squamous cell – which affects the surface cells that line the gallbladder

The Cancer Research UK website has more information about the different types of gallbladder cancer.

Symptoms of gallbladder cancer

In the early stages, gallbladder cancer doesn't usually cause any symptoms. This means it's often diagnosed at a more advanced stage.

Symptoms that occur at a later stage can include:

  • tummy pain
  • feeling or being sick
  • yellowing colour of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)

Other symptoms can include:

  • not feeling hungry
  • unexplained weight loss
  • a swollen tummy
  • dark yellow urine or pale-coloured poo (usually with jaundice)
  • itchy skin

These symptoms can be caused by a number of conditions and may not be related to gallbladder cancer. But it's important you tell your GP about them so they can find the cause.

Diagnosis for gallbladder cancer

Your GP will examine you and ask about your symptoms. If they suspect gallbladder cancer, they may refer you to a specialist at a hospital.

This will usually be a doctor who specialises in conditions of the digestive system (a gastroenterologist or gastrointestinal surgeon).

Your GP may also refer you for some tests, including:

If these tests show anything abnormal in or around your gallbladder, further tests may be arranged to help confirm whether you have gallbladder cancer.

These may include:

  • a thin needle being inserted into the tissues around the gallbladder and a sample (biopsy) being removed – normally only done if there's any doubt about the diagnosis
  • an endoscope being passed through your mouth to near the gallbladder and injecting a dye that shows up on X-rays, which are then taken to help see if there are any abnormalities (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography, or ERCP) – normally only done if you also have jaundice

ERCP also allows your doctors to put in place a stent or tube to help alleviate the jaundice.

The Cancer Research UK website has more information about tests for gallbladder cancer.

Treatment for gallbladder cancer

The main treatment for gallbladder cancer is surgery to remove the gallbladder (cholecystectomy) and possibly some of the surrounding tissue. This can include the part of the liver the gallbladder is attached to.

If your doctors think the cancer may have spread to any lymph glands (part your body's fluid drainage system) around the gallbladder, these may also be removed.

It's safe to remove the gallbladder and it shouldn't affect your ability to digest food.

If the gallbladder cancer is too advanced to remove or it's spread to other organs (metastases), you won't have surgery.

Chemotherapy and radiotherapy are also sometimes used, either on their own or in combination with surgery.

The treatment or combination of treatments most suitable for you will depend on:

  • the type of gallbladder cancer you have
  • the stage of your cancer
  • your overall level of health

The Cancer Research UK website has more information about staging gallbladder cancer, treating gallbladder cancer and the outlook for gallbladder cancer.

Causes of gallbladder cancer

The exact cause of gallbladder cancer isn't known, but certain things are thought to increase your chances of developing it.

These include:

  • older age – it's more common in people over the age of 70
  • family history – you have a higher risk of developing gallbladder cancer if a parent, sibling or child has had the condition
  • having another gallbladder condition – you have a higher risk if you have already had gallstones, inflammation of the gallbladder (cholecystitis), polyps in your gallbladder or a condition called porcelain gallbladder
  • being obese
  • smoking

The Cancer Research UK website has more information about the possible risks and causes of gallbladder cancer.

Page last reviewed: 17/01/2018
Next review due: 17/01/2021