Gallbladder cancer is very rare. Around 800 people in the UK are diagnosed with the condition each year.
There are a number of different types of gallbladder cancer, depending on the cells affected.
Over 85% of gallbladder cancers are adenocarcinoma, which means the cancer started in the gland cells lining the gallbladder.
Cancer that starts in the skin-like cells that line the gallbladder is known as squamous cell cancer.
The Cancer Research UK website has more information about the different types of gallbladder cancer.
Cancer of the gallbladder is more common in women than men, with around 7 out of 10 cases diagnosed in women. It's also more common in older people, particularly those over 70 years of age.
The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ that's located underneath the liver. It's main purpose is to store and concentrate bile.
Bile is a liquid produced by the liver that helps to digest fats. It passes from the liver through a series of channels (bile ducts) into the gallbladder, where it's stored.
Over time, bile becomes more concentrated, which makes it better at digesting fats. The gallbladder releases bile into the digestive system when it's needed.
The gallbladder is a useful but not essential organ, which can be safely removed without interfering with your ability to digest food.
Symptoms of gallbladder cancer
In the early stages, gallbladder cancer doesn't cause symptoms, which means it could be at an advanced stage by the time it's diagnosed.
Symptoms that occur at a later stage can include:
- abdominal (stomach) pain
- feeling sick
- jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
These symptoms could be linked to a number of conditions and may not be related to gallbladder cancer. However, if you have these symptoms, you should visit your GP so they can investigate what's causing them.
Other possible symptoms of gallbladder cancer can include loss of appetite, unexplained weight loss and a swollen stomach.
What causes gallbladder cancer?
In gallbladder cancer, abnormal cells grow within the gallbladder. It's not known why this happens, but certain things are thought to increase your chances of developing the condition.
Gallbladder cancer is more common in older people, and your chances of developing it increase with age. In the UK, most cases occur in people over the age of 70.
Lifestyle factors – such as obesity, smoking and an unhealthy diet – are believed to increase the risk of gallbladder cancer. However, there's not enough evidence to show a firm link between diet and gallbladder cancer.
There are also a number of conditions that can increase your chances of developing gallbladder cancer. For example, gallstones, cholecystitis (inflammation of the gallbladder) and diabetes have been closely linked to the condition.
If you have a family history of gallstones, cholecystitis, or gallbladder cancer, you're more likely to develop these conditions yourself.
The Cancer Research UK website has more information about the risks and causes of gallbladder cancer.
Diagnosing gallbladder cancer
Your GP will examine you and ask about your symptoms. If they suspect gallbladder cancer, they may refer you to a specialist, usually a gastroenterologist (a doctor who specialises in conditions of the digestive system).
The specialist will ask about your medical history and check to see whether the lymph glands in your neck and groin are swollen.
You may also have some initial tests, including:
If these tests reveal anything abnormal in or around your gallbladder, further tests may be arranged to help confirm whether you have gallbladder cancer. These may include:
- an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)
- a magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP)
- biopsy and fine needle aspiration (FNA)
The Cancer Research UK website has more information about tests for gallbladder cancer.
Treating gallbladder cancer
The main treatment for gallbladder cancer is surgery to remove the gallbladder and possibly some of the surrounding tissue.
Chemotherapy and radiotherapy are also sometimes used, either on their own or in combination with surgery.
The treatment programme that's most suitable for you will depend on:
- the type of gallbladder cancer you have
- the stage of your cancer
- your overall level of health
As with all cancers, the chances of survival depend on how far the condition has advanced when it is diagnosed.
For example, if the cancerous cells are confined to the gallbladder lining, your chances of living for more than five years are good (about 80%).
However, if gallbladder cancer has spread into the surrounding tissue or lymph nodes, your chances of living for at least five years are much lower (30%).
The Cancer Research UK website has more information about treating gallbladder cancer and the stages and outlook for gallbladder cancer.