February is Gallbladder and Bile Duct Cancer Awareness Month. Unlike other, more common forms of cancer, such as breast, colon and prostate cancer, there is an overall lack of knowledge among the general public about gallbladder and bile duct cancer, which is relatively rare. Therefore, the goal of Gallbladder and Bile Duct Cancer Awareness Month is to get people talking and raise awareness about these conditions.
The gallbladder is a small organ that is connected to the liver by the bile ducts. Its function is to store bile, a substance produced by the liver to aid in the digestion of dietary fats. Although the gallbladder plays an important role in digestion, it is possible to live without this helpful but nonessential organ.
When cancer develops in the gallbladder, it usually begins within the innermost layers and then gradually spreads to the surrounding tissues. This type of cancer can be challenging to detect, mainly because the gallbladder is a tiny organ that is largely concealed by the liver. For this reason, it is important for everyone to learn about the risk factors and symptoms of gallbladder and bile duct cancer, and to promptly report anything unusual to a physician.
While the precise causes of gallbladder cancer are unknown, the leading risk factor is believed to be a history of gallstones. These tiny crystals, which are made up of hardened bile and cholesterol, can form within the gallbladder and prevent the passage of bile. This can lead to pain, inflammation and jaundice. However, even though this condition can increase the risk of developing gallbladder cancer, it is important to keep in mind that gallstones are very common, but gallbladder cancer is not.
Some of the initial signs and symptoms of gallbladder and bile duct cancer include:
- Jaundice (a yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
- Black, tarry stools
- Abdominal pain and swelling
- Unexplained weight loss
If you experience any of these symptoms and are unable to readily explain their cause, you are encouraged to speak with a physician right away. When symptoms occur, they tend to be mild at first, and this can make them easy to overlook.
If you’d like to learn more about the warning signs of gallbladder and bile duct cancer or the diagnostic and treatment services available in the Gastrointestinal Oncology Program at Moffitt Cancer Center, call 1-888-663-3488 or complete our new patient registration form online. We do not require referrals.