Gallbladder cancer is rare. Just under 1000 people in the UK are diagnosed with it each year. It is most common in people over 75. It is more common in women than men.
The gallbladder 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 gallbladder. A tube called the bile duct connects the gallbladder to the small intestine and the liver.
The parts of the gallbladder and bile duct that are outside the liver are called the extrahepatic biliary system. We have separate information about bile duct cancer (cholangiocarcinoma), which is a rare cancer that starts in the bile duct.
Doctors do not know the exact causes of gallbladder 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 gallbladder cancer. Also, having no risk factors does not mean you will not develop gallbladder cancer.
Gallbladder cancer is most common in people aged over 75.
Gallbladder cancer is more common in women than men.
Gallstones and inflammation
People with a history of gallstones or an inflamed gallbladder (cholecystitis) have a higher risk. But most people with these conditions do not develop gallbladder cancer.
These are non-cancerous (benign) tumours of the gallbladder. Having polyps increases the risk of developing gallbladder cancer. Bigger polyps have a higher risk than smaller ones. Doctors are usually more concerned about polyps that are bigger than 1cm.
This is when calcium builds up in the wall of the gallbladder. People with this condition have a slightly increased risk of gallbladder cancer.
Abnormal bile ducts
Gallbladder cancer is slightly more common in people born with abnormal bile ducts.
People with type 2 diabetes have a higher risk of gallbladder cancer.
People who smoke have a higher risk of gallbladder cancer.
Being very overweight can increase your risk of developing gallbladder cancer.
Close relatives of people with gallbladder cancer have a slightly higher risk. A close relative is a parent, brother or sister.
People from Peru and Northern India have a higher risk of gallbladder cancer.
Primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC)
This is a rare condition that causes inflammation of the bile ducts. It can increase the risk of gallbladder cancer.
Gallbladder cancer may be diagnosed by chance during an operation to remove the gallbladder. You may have this surgery if you have 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
MRCP scan (magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography)
An MRCP is a special type of MRI scan that looks at the gallbladder and nearby organs. If you are going to have this scan, your doctors will tell you more about it.
ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangio-pancreatography)
EUS (endoscopic ultrasound)
PTC (percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography)
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 of the cancer helps your doctors plan the best treatment for you. We have more information about staging and grading for gallbladder 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:
- the position and size of the cancer
- whether it has spread to other areas of the body
- your general health
- your preferences.
Treatment for gallbladder cancer may include:
Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy the cancer cells. For gallbladder cancer, it may be used after surgery, to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back (adjuvant treatment). It may also be used if surgery is not possible or if the cancer has come back after surgery (recurrence). This can help shrink or slow down the growth of the cancer. The chemotherapy drugs most commonly used to treat gallbladder cancer are gemcitabine (Gemzar®) and cisplatin. Sometimes chemotherapy and radiotherapy are given together if surgery is not possible.
Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to target the tumour. This helps to destroy the cancer cells, while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells. It may be used to help with symptoms if gallbladder cancer has spread. You may only need a few treatments and the side effects are usually mild.
You may have some treatments as part of a clinical trial.
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.
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. We have more information to help you cope with your emotions.
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.
Macmillan is also here to support you. If you would like to talk, you can:
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.
Below is a sample of the sources used in our gallbladder cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at email@example.com
Biliary Cancer: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow up. 2016. Vol 27, 5. pp.28-37.
Uptodate: Surgical management of gallbladder cancer. 2018. www.uptodate.com/contents/surgical-management-of-gallbladder-cancer
This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Dr Paul Ross, Consultant Medical Oncologist.
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