Early detection of gallbladder cancer is difficult. There are typically no symptoms in its initial stages, and if symptoms do present, they can be vague or similar to those of other, less serious illnesses. Another challenge of identifying gallbladder cancer is the organ’s small size and concealed position behind the liver. As a result, gallbladder cancer is most commonly diagnosed when the cancer progresses into a later stage and produces noticeable symptoms.
Possible signs and symptoms of gallbladder cancer include:
Jaundice is a yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes. It develops when bilirubin—a waste material that gives stool its color—is not properly disposed by the liver and builds up in the bloodstream. The liver and gallbladder work in tandem to facilitate digestion, and when cancer grows large enough to block the bile ducts that drain bilirubin, jaundice may occur. This symptom is present in roughly half of all patients at diagnosis and is the most common warning sign of gallbladder cancer.
Abdominal pain and swelling
Abdominal pain and swelling can occur if gallbladder cancer grows big enough to block bile ducts and prevent proper bile drainage. This results in an enlarged gallbladder that may appear as an enlarged belly. While a swollen or tender abdomen is more likely to be caused by less serious gastrointestinal issues, it is important to be mindful of any unexplained changes in abdominal size. Gallbladder cancer can also result in abdominal pain, usually in the upper right corner of the stomach.
The swelling caused by blocked bile ducts and gallbladder enlargement may sometimes appear or feel as a lump in the abdomen. In other cases, tumors may spread to the liver and surrounding structures and be felt as lumps, most often on the right side of the stomach.
Other gallbladder cancer symptoms
Gallbladder cancer is also associated with other symptoms, including:
- Fever and chills
- Unexplained weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Skin itchiness
- Dark urine
- Unusually pale or dark stools
- Nausea and vomiting
Individuals with one or more of these symptoms should speak with their physician. While gallbladder cancer is rare and other gallbladder problems, such as gallstones, are much more common, it is important to identify the cause of any unexplained or prolonged symptoms.
Risk factors for gallbladder cancer
A risk factor is anything that may increase the chances of developing a certain medical condition. While people who have gallbladder cancer risk factors are still unlikely to be diagnosed, it can be helpful to understand what might influence cancer risk. For example, individuals with the following risk factors should be particularly mindful of gallbladder cancer symptoms and promptly consult a physician if they occur:
- Female gender. Women are more likely to have gallbladder cancer than men.
- Advanced age. Gallbladder cancer most often affects people over 70.
- Medical history. Having bile duct abnormalities or a history of gallbladder polyps, gallstones or bile duct cysts is associated with an increased risk of gallbladder cancer.
- Obesity. Many people who are diagnosed with gallbladder cancer are overweight or obese.
- Ethnicity. Gallbladder cancer is more prevalent among Native Americans and Mexican Americans than other ethnicities.
- Other possible risk factors. Some studies suggest that smoking and exposure to nitrosamines and certain chemicals used in the textile and rubber industries may increase gallbladder cancer risk. However, more research is needed.
Unlike several other forms of cancer, gallbladder cancer is not thought to be genetic (inherited from a family member).
Gallbladder cancer diagnosis
Diagnosing gallbladder cancer typically begins with a physical exam and thorough review of symptoms. Blood work and liver function testing may also be ordered. If a physician suspects that a patient may have gallbladder cancer, there are multiple imaging tests that can be used to help confirm or rule out a cancer diagnosis. These include:
- Magnetic resonance or endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography
- Percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography
- PET scan
- Endoscopic or laparoscopic ultrasound
After gallbladder cancer is diagnosed, the next step is to stage the cancer—or identify how far it has spread—and begin treatment. Surgery to remove the gallbladder and surrounding lymph nodes (cholecystectomy) is often performed, along with chemotherapy and radiation therapy to help destroy remaining cancer cells and improve symptoms. Like most other cancers, treatment for gallbladder cancer is more effective when the cancer is diagnosed in an early stage.
Moffitt’s approach to gallbladder cancer
The multispecialty team at Moffitt Cancer Center has extensive experience diagnosing and treating all stages of gallbladder cancer and other complex gastrointestinal malignancies. Moffitt is a Comprehensive Cancer Center, as designated by the National Cancer Institute in recognition of our trailblazing research efforts, and we offer a variety of progressive treatments and clinical trials for gallbladder cancer that aren’t yet widely available.
Moffitt’s Gastrointestinal Oncology Program provides a comprehensive range of diagnostics, treatment options, clinical trials and supportive care from experts who focus exclusively on GI cancers. As a high-volume cancer center, Moffitt is led by physicians who routinely address uncommon diseases like gallbladder cancer. This unparalleled clinical expertise, combined with our advanced treatment technologies and personalized approach to care, allows our patients achieve the best possible outcomes and quality of life.
If you would like to speak with a Moffitt physician about potential gallbladder cancer symptoms, or to receive information about our approach to gallbladder cancer diagnostics and treatment, contact us at 1-888-663-3488 or complete a new patient registration form online.