Gallbladder cancer occurs when cancer cells develop in the tissues that make up the gallbladder. This organ is responsible for storing bile, a fluid that the liver makes to remove fat and other waste products from the body. When cancer occurs in the gallbladder, it normally begins in the inner layers of the organ before expanding to the surrounding tissue and potentially spreading to the liver and other nearby organs. Because the gallbladder is a tiny organ concealed by the liver, early detection is often difficult. As a result, this condition is usually identified in late stages, making it more challenging to treat.
Gallbladder Cancer Symptoms
Gallbladder cancer symptoms can include:
- Jaundice (a yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes)
- Stomach pain and swelling
- Lumps in the midsection
- Skin itchiness
- Loss of appetite
- Unexplained weight loss
- Dark urine
- Unusually pale or dark stool
Unfortunately, as was mentioned above, it’s often difficult to detect gallbladder cancer in its early stages. This is in large part because gallbladder cancer symptoms typically don’t appear right away, and if they do, they can resemble the symptoms of less serious illnesses. Of the symptoms listed above, jaundice is generally the most common warning sign of this malignancy, and is present in approximately half of all gallbladder cancer patients at the time of diagnosis.
Gallbladder Cancer Causes & Risk Factors
Researchers within the scientific community are still working to determine exactly what causes gallbladder cancer, although studies suggest that this malignancy develops after DNA damage occurs within the gallbladder cells.
While the precise cause of gallbladder cancer is still unknown, there are various risk factors that can make someone more likely to develop this malignancy, including:
- A history of gallstones, bile duct blockages or gallbladder polyps
- Certain conditions such as porcelain gallbladder and primary sclerosing cholangitis
- Advanced age (many cases are diagnosed after age 70)
- Exposure to certain industrial and environmental toxins
Gallbladder Cancer Diagnosis
If a physical examination suggests the presence of gallbladder cancer, physicians can use a number of tests to confirm or rule out this diagnosis, including:
- Blood work
- Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography
- Endoscopic ultrasound
- Laparoscopic ultrasound
- Liver function testing
- Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography
- Percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography
- Positron emission tomography (PET) scans
Because gallbladder cancer generally isn’t diagnosed until it has reached a later stage, if a physician suspects this malignancy, it’s important to diagnose and stage the condition as quickly as possible to help achieve the best possible outcome and quality of life.
Types of Gallbladder Cancer
There are numerous types of gallbladder cancer, the most common being adenocarcinoma, which develops in the gland-like cells lining the organs within the digestive tract. Another common type of gallbladder cancer is papillary adenocarcinoma, which has cells arranged in projections resembling fingers. Other less common types of gallbladder cancer include:
- Adenosquamous carcinoma
- Small cell carcinoma
- Squamous cell carcinoma
Each type of gallbladder cancer grows at a different rate and responds differently to treatment, so an accurate diagnosis is important.
Gallbladder Cancer Treatment
Gallbladder cancer can be treated using a number of different methods, and the approach that’s right for a patient will depend on his or her specific condition. Treatment options include:
- Surgery – If the malignancy has not spread beyond the gallbladder, a surgeon may perform a cholecystectomy to remove the gallbladder and some surrounding tissues, including lymph nodes. Other procedures, such as a surgical bilary bypass, can be used to help relieve symptoms even if the malignancy has already spread.
- Radiation therapy – Often combined with surgery and other treatment methods, radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays to destroy cancerous cells. Radiation therapy can also be an excellent choice in cases where the malignancy has advanced to a point where surgery is no longer an option.
- Chemotherapy – Chemotherapy involves using therapeutic drugs—whether delivered orally, by injection or through biologic immunotherapy—to either slow the growth of the tumor or destroy it entirely.
- Clinical trials – This may include advancements in surgery, endoscopy, medications, molecular therapy and immune therapy.
- Supportive care – Certain treatments can be used to help relieve a patient’s symptoms and improve his or her quality of life.
Our Approach to Treatment
At Moffitt Cancer Center, our gallbladder tumor team has extensive experience treating all stages of gallbladder cancer. From Moffitt’s Gastrointestinal (GI) Oncology Program, you will receive the most promising, thorough treatments available, and our team will address all of your health care needs and concerns.
To ensure that you receive the best possible care, a multispecialty group of surgeons, medical oncologists, radiologists, pathologists, nurses and other experts takes a collaborative and coordinated approach to develop a comprehensive treatment plan for your gallbladder cancer. A few of the treatment options that we offer for patients who have been diagnosed with this form of GI cancer include:
- Radiation oncology
- Clinical research trials
- Pain management and other supportive care services
Depending on the stage and other qualities of your gallbladder cancer, we may recommend more than one of these treatments. Moffitt Cancer Center has been recognized for its extensive research efforts and advanced clinical trials, and as a result is a designated Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute. This designation not only speaks to our expertise, but our advanced therapies not yet available at other facilities in Florida.
For more information about our gallbladder cancer program, call 1-888-663-3488 or complete a new patient registration form. No referral is needed to meet with our multispecialty gallbladder team. Your cancer diagnosis is our top priority; speak to a cancer expert as soon as possible.