What is gall bladder cancer?

Gall bladder cancer is rare. Just under 1000 people are diagnosed with it in the UK each year. It is rare in people under 50 and is most common in people over 75. It is more common in women than men.

The gall bladder

The gall bladder is a small pouch that stores bile. Bile is a fluid that helps us digest food and break down fats. It is made by the liver and stored in the gall bladder. The gall bladder is connected to the small intestine and the liver by small tubes called the bile ducts.

The position of the gall bladder

The gall bladder and the bile ducts together are called the biliary system. We have separate information about bile duct cancer (cholangiocarcinoma), which is a rare cancer that starts in the bile duct.

Symptoms of gall bladder cancer

Early gall bladder cancer does not usually cause symptoms. It is often found when someone has surgery to remove gallstones. But most people who have surgery for gallstones will not have gall bladder cancer.

Most gall bladder cancers are only found at an advanced stage. They can cause different symptoms, including:

  • sickness
  • high temperatures (fevers)
  • weight loss
  • pain in the tummy (abdomen).

If the cancer blocks the bile duct, it may stop the flow of bile from the gall bladder into the small bowel. This causes bile to flow back into the blood and body tissues. This can lead to:

  • the skin and whites of the eyes becoming yellow (jaundice)
  • urine becoming a dark yellow colour
  • pale stools (bowel motions)
  • itchy skin.

These symptoms may be caused by other problems, such as gallstones or an infection of the gall bladder. But it is important to get them checked by your doctor.

Causes of gall bladder cancer

Doctors do not know the exact causes of gall bladder cancer. But there are risk factors that can increase your chance of developing it.

Having one or more risk factors does not mean you will get gall bladder cancer. Also, having no risk factors does not mean you will not develop gall bladder cancer.

We have more information about the causes and risk factors of gall bladder cancer.

Diagnosis of gall bladder cancer

Gall bladder cancer may be diagnosed by chance during an operation to remove the gall bladder. This surgery is usually because of gallstones or inflammation.

Or you may be diagnosed after seeing your GP to have your symptoms checked. Your GP will then refer you to a hospital specialist.

At the hospital

The specialist doctor will ask you about your general health and any previous medical problems. They will examine you and take blood samples. This is to check your general health and that your liver is working properly. They may also do the following tests:

  • Ultrasound scan

    An ultrasound scan uses sound-waves to build up a picture of the gall bladder and surrounding organs.

  • CT scan

    A CT scan takes a series of x-rays, which build up a three-dimensional picture of the inside of your body.

  • MRI scan

    An MRI scan uses magnetism to build up a detailed picture of areas of your body.

  • MRCP scan

    An MRCP is a special type of MRI scan that may be used. It is not widely available. If you are having this scan, your doctors will tell you more about it.

  • ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangio-pancreatography)

    An ERCP is when the doctor passes a thin flexible tube (endoscope) down into the first part of the small bowel (duodenum). They look at the gall bladder and take samples of tissue (biopsies).

  • EUS (endoscopic ultrasound)

    An EUS is similar to an ERCP, but an ultrasound probe is attached to the endoscope. This takes an ultrasound scan of the gall bladder and other organs. It may also be used to take a sample of tissue (biopsy).

  • PTC (percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography)

    A PTC is a test that uses x-rays to look at the bile duct.

  • Laparoscopy

    A laparoscopy is a small operation used to look at your gall bladder, liver and other organs close to the gall bladder. The surgeon uses a thin tube with a camera on the end, called a laparoscope. They may also take biopsies.

Waiting for test results can be a difficult time, we have more information that can help.

Staging and grading of gall bladder cancer

The stage of the cancer describes the size and position of the cancer and whether it has spread.

A doctor decides the grade of the cancer by how the cancer cells look under the microscope. This gives an idea of how quickly the cancer may develop.

Knowing the stage and grade helps your doctors plan the best treatment for you.

Treatment for gall bladder cancer

A team of specialists will meet to discuss the best possible treatment for you. This is called a multidisciplinary team (MDT).

Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse will explain the different treatments and their side effects. They will also talk to you about things to consider when making treatment decisions.

The treatment you have will depend on:

  • your general health
  • the position and size of the cancer
  • whether it has spread to other areas of the body.

Treatment for gall bladder cancer may include:

  • Surgery

    Surgery can be used to remove the gall bladder. If the cancer has spread then surgery can also be used to remove the surrounding tissue, lymph nodes and parts of other organs.

  • Chemotherapy

    Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy the cancer cells. For gall bladder cancer, it may be used after surgery if the surgeon cannot remove all the cancer. It may also be used if surgery is not possible or if the cancer has come back after surgery. The chemotherapy drugs most commonly used are gemcitabine (Gemzar®) and cisplatin.

  • Radiotherapy

    Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells. It may be used to relieve symptoms if gall bladder cancer has spread. You may only need a few treatments and the side effects are usually mild.

  • Stents

    If the cancer is blocking your bile duct, this can often be treated with a flexible plastic or metal tube called a stent. The stent holds the duct open, so it is no longer blocked. We have more information about bile duct stents.

You may have some treatments as part of a clinical trial.

After gall bladder cancer treatment

After your treatment has finished, you will have regular follow-up appointments. You may also have some scans and x-rays. These may continue for several years. Let your doctor know as soon as possible if you have any problems or notice new symptoms between these times.

Your feelings

You may have many different emotions, including anxiety, anger and fear. These are all normal reactions. They are part of the process that many people experience when dealing with cancer.

Everyone has their own way of coping with difficult situations. Some people find it helpful to talk to family or friends. Others may prefer to seek help from people outside their situation. Some people prefer to keep their feelings to themselves.

There is no right or wrong way to cope, but help is there if you need it. Our cancer support specialists can give you information about counselling in your area.

Well-being and recovery

Even if you already have a healthy lifestyle, you may choose to make some positive lifestyle changes after treatment.

Making small changes such as eating well and keeping active can improve your health and wellbeing and help your body recover.

Reviewed: 14 February 2017
Reviewed: 14/02/2017
Next review: 01 January 2019
Next review: 01/01/2019