Gallbladder cancer is rare – and deadly – which is why it's so important to learn about the signs and symptoms and help spread awareness.
What’s the Gallbladder’s Job?
The gallbladder’s main function is to store and concentrate bile (a digestive enzyme made by the liver). It also drains waste from the liver into a person’s small intestine. When you have trouble with your gallbladder, it can be removed because the liver will send bile directly into the small intestine rather than being stored in the gallbladder and concentrated.
Gallbladder cancer is very rare, and it’s not usually found until it’s become advanced and causes symptoms. The American Cancer Society’s recent statistics indicate that only about 1 of 5 gallbladder cancers is found when the cancer hasn’t spread beyond the gallbladder. The chances of survival for people with gallbladder cancer depend largely on how advanced it is when it’s found, and even those diagnosed with stage 1 gallbladder cancer have only a 50% five-year survival rate.
“Many times gallbladder cancer is discovered incidentally as we are addressing other issues, like removing the gallbladder for symptoms of gallstones,” says Jacob Dowden, MD, board certified general surgeon with University Surgical Associates who specializes in surgery of the liver, pancreas and biliary system. “Depending on how invasive the cancer is, sometimes it’s necessary to do additional surgery to take out parts of the liver surrounding where the gallbladder used to be.”
Because the surgery to treat gallbladder cancer is uncommon and complex, it’s important to choose a surgeon who has advanced training in cancer treatment and HPB procedures. HPB stands for Hepato-Pancreato-Biliary surgery, or in other words, surgery of the liver, pancreas and biliary system. The biliary system, which includes the liver, gallbladder, and bile ducts, forms part of the body’s digestive system. This system is responsible for nutrient absorption and waste disposal, and can be affected by a range of short term or chronic diseases or conditions. See more information about HPB surgery here.
Why Isn’t Gallbladder Cancer Found Earlier?
The symptoms of gallbladder cancer often mimic common gallbladder attacks and can be easily confused for a non-cancerous gallbladder issue. Even the appearance of gallbladder cancer on CT scans can look very similar to non-cancerous inflammation.
“Our bodies don’t feel pain on the inside like they do on the outside, and cancers inside the body can grow larger without causing symptoms until they begin pressing on other organs,” says Dr. Dowden. “Gallbladder cancer can grow inside the gallbladder until it obstructs the bile ducts (or the tubes that deliver bile into the small intestine), resulting in jaundice, a condition causing yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes.”
Who’s at Risk for Gallbladder Cancer?
Studies have shown that some risk factors make a person more likely to develop gallbladder cancer, and many are related in some way to chronic inflammation that causes irritation and swelling in the gallbladder. A full list of gallbladder cancer risk factors can be viewed by visiting the ACS website.
- Gallstones. Gallstones are very common, and gallbladder cancer is quite rare. But at least 3 out of 4 people with gallbladder cancer have gallstones when diagnosed.
- Female gender. Women in the US are diagnosed with gallbladder cancer more than twice as often as men.
- Age. Although younger people can develop it, gallbladder is seen mainly in older people. The average age of diagnose is 72.
- Ethnicity. In the US, the risk of developing gallbladder cancer is highest among Native Americans and Mexican Americans. The risk is lowest among African Americans.
- Gallbladder polyps. These growths bulge from the surface of the inner gallbladder wall, formed by cholesterol deposits or small tumors (either cancerous or benign). Polyps larger than 1 centimeter are more likely to be cancerous, and doctors recommend removing the gallbladder with these types of growths.
How Can I Protect Myself?
Dr. Dowden’s advice: since many of the symptoms of gallbladder cancer are the same as for gallstones, it’s important to see your physician right away if you suspect problems.
“Right abdominal pain or discomfort, bloating, nausea, and pain after eating fatty foods are routinely signs that something is wrong with the gallbladder,” says Dr. Dowden. “Thankfully, gallbladder surgery is one of the most common outpatient surgeries performed today, and it’s very safe. The surgery itself takes roughly an hour and most people return home the same day. There’s no reason for people to suffer with the condition.”