Your gallbladder is located just under your liver and helps digest food. Unless you’ve been diagnosed with gallbladder disease, many people give little thought to this tiny pear-shaped organ.
Although gallbladder cancer is rare in the U.S., it can be hard to diagnose. When it’s detected early, the likelihood of recovery is good. However, many people don’t have symptoms in the early stages and approximately 80 percent of gallbladder cancers aren’t found until the cancer has begun to spread.
“Usually patients are often asymptomatic at diagnosis,” said Andrew Weinberg, DO, medical director of gastroenterology care for Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center. “Early signs are not often present and later symptoms, such as nausea and anorexia, aren’t specific to this type of cancer.”
What Are the Risk Factors?
The exact cause of gallbladder cancer is unknown, but some factors put certain individuals at higher risk. Common risk factors include:
- Gender: Gallbladder cancer is more than twice as common in women as it is in men in the U.S.
- Age: Two-thirds of gallbladder cancers occur mainly in those over the age of 65.
- Ethnic Background: Native Americans, Hispanic Americans and those of Alaskan origin have the highest risk.
- Obesity: Excessive weight not only contributes to gallstones but also many cancers.
- Alcohol and Liver Diseases: Alcohol consumption, especially in excess can increase risk, as well as alcohol-associated liver damage such as cirrhosis. Hepatitis B and C infections can also increase risk.
- Other Gallbladder Diseases and Conditions: Gallstones are the leading risk factor for developing gallbladder cancer; although gallstones are a common occurrence while gallbadder cancer is not. Other conditions that can increase the risk include gallbladder polyps and chronic gallbladder infection.
How Is Gallbladder Cancer Diagnosed?
Although there are no screening guidelines for this type of cancer, it is sometimes incidentally detected during a routine office visit if liver function blood tests are elevated or from an abdominal imaging study often done for other reasons. If abnormal testing is noted, follow-up tests and scans are usually completed to rule out certain diseases.
However, in some cases, Dr. Weinberg said it can be found because of other gallbladder issues. “Incidental findings can occur during surgery to remove the gallbladder for gallstones or biliary dyskinesia,” Dr. Weinberg said. “Or the gallbladder may appear abnormal on incidental imaging studies as well.”
How Is It Treated?
“In early stages where the cancer has not spread beyond your gallbladder, surgery is often the primary treatment,” explained Dr. Weinberg. “If the cancer has spread, however, patients will need to see an oncologist who specializes in biliary cancers, as they may require additional treatment therapies.”
Chemotherapy or Radiation
Surgery can’t cure gallbladder cancers that have spread to other areas, so doctors may also treat patients with chemotherapy and radiation therapy to reduce the recurrence of the disease.
Patients may be eligible to enroll in clinical trials to try new medications or methods for treating gallbladder cancer and other biliary cancers.
If you are experiencing severe abdominal pain, particularly in the upper right portion of your abdomen, bloating, fever, sudden weight loss or yellowing of the skin or eyes, make an appointment with your doctor to be evaluated. To find a Banner MD Anderson expert near you, visit bannerhealth.com.