What is gall bladder cancer?
Gall bladder or bile duct cancer (cholangiocarcinoma) occurs when cells in the gall bladder become abnormal and keep growing to form a mass or lump called a tumour. The tumour type is defined by the particular cells that are affected.
Malignant (cancerous) tumours have the potential to spread to other parts of the body through the blood stream or lymph vessels and form another tumour deposit at a new site. This new tumour is known as secondary cancer or metastasis.
The gall bladder
The gall bladder is a small, pear-shaped organ on the right side of the abdomen. It is part of the digestive system and sits under the liver. It stores bile that is made by the liver. Bile is passed through small tubes (bile ducts) into the small bowel (small intestine) after eating and helps to break down fats.
Types of gall bladder cancer
The most common type of gall bladder cancer is adenocarcinoma, which starts in epithelial cells (which release mucus) that line the inside of the gall bladder. These make up about 85% of all gall bladder cancers. Other types of gall bladder cancer include:
- squamous cell carcinoma, from squamous cells (skin-like cells)
- sarcoma, from connective tissue (which support and connect all the organs and structures of the body)
- lymphoma, from lymph tissue (part of the immune system which protects the body).
How common is gall bladder cancer?
Gall bladder cancer is rare. About 891 Australians are diagnosed each year with gall bladder or bile duct cancer (about 3 cases per 100,000 people). It is more likely to be diagnosed in women than men, and in people aged over 65 years old.
The cause of gall bladder cancer is not known in most cases, but risk factors can include:
- having had gallstones or inflammation of the gall bladder
- family history of gall bladder cancer
- other gall bladder and bile duct conditions and abnormalities, such as gall bladder polyps, choledochal cysts (bile-filled cysts) and calcified gall bladder (also known as porcelain gall bladder).
Gall bladder cancer can be difficult to diagnose in its early stages as it doesn’t usually cause symptoms. If symptoms do occur, they can include:
- abdominal pain, often on the upper right side
- nausea or vomiting
- jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), causing dark urine (wee), pale bowel movements (poo) and severe itching without any visible skin rash
- general weakness or fatigue
- a lump in the abdomen
- unexplained weight loss
Sometimes, gall bladder cancer is found when the gall bladder is removed for another reason, such as gallstones. But most people who have surgery for gallstones do not have gall bladder cancer. Gall bladder cancer is sometimes suspected when there is a large gall bladder polyp (greater than 1 cm) or a calcified gall bladder.
Finding a specialist
You can utilise Rare Cancers Australia's directory of health professionals and cancer services across Australia for further resources and information about gall bladder cancer.
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If your doctor thinks that you may have gall bladder cancer, they will perform a physical examination and carry out certain tests. If the results suggest that you may have gall bladder cancer, you will be referred to a specialist who will carry out more tests, which may include:
- Blood tests – including a full blood count, liver function tests and tumour markers (to measure chemicals produced by cancer cells).
- Ultrasound scan – where soundwaves are used to create pictures of the inside of your body.
- CT (computerised tomography) and/or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans – special painless machines are used to scan and create pictures of the inside of your body.
- Diagnostic laparoscopy – a thin tube with a camera on the end (laparoscope) is inserted under sedation into the abdomen so the doctor can view inside.
- Cholangiography – an x-ray of the bile duct to see if there is any narrowing or blockage and help plan surgery to remove the gall bladder.
- Biopsy – removal of some tissue from the affected area for examination under a microscope.
Understanding Gall Bladder Cancer
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Expert content reviewers:
Kathleen Boys, Consumer; Dr Julian Choi, HPB Surgeon, Western Health and Epworth Hospital, Vic; David Fry, Consumer; Dr Robert Gandy, Hepatobiliary Surgeon, Prince of Wales Hospital, Randwick, NSW; Yvonne King 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council NSW; Elizabeth Lynch, Consumer; Dr Jenny Shannon, Medical Oncologist, Nepean Hospital Cancer Centre, NSW.
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The information on this webpage was adapted from Understanding Gall Bladder Cancer - A guide for people affected by cancer (2021 edition). This webpage was last updated in June 2021.