Gallbladder cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the gallbladder.
Your gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ on the right side of your abdomen, just beneath your liver. The gallbladder stores bile, a digestive fluid produced by your liver.
Gallbladder cancer is uncommon. When gallbladder cancer is discovered at its earliest stages, the chance for a cure is very good. But most gallbladder cancers are discovered at a late stage, when the prognosis is often very poor.
Your prognosis and treatment options depend on whether it is discovered early or at a late stage:
- Early-stage gallbladder cancer: Surgical removal, or a cholecystectomy, is an option when the cancer has not spread to other areas of the body. In some cases, if the cancer has spread into the liver, your surgeon can remove affected portions of the liver and surrounding bile ducts during the cholecystectomy.
- Late-stage gallbladder cancer: Surgery is not an option for cancer that has spread beyond the gall bladder to other parts of the body. Your doctor may prescribe radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or both to relieve your symptoms and make you as comfortable as possible.
Factors that can increase the risk of gallbladder cancer include:
- Your sex. Gallbladder cancer is more common in women.
- Your age. Your risk of gallbladder cancer increases as you age.
- Your weight. People who are obese are at higher risk for developing gallbladder cancer.
- A history of gallstones. Gallbladder cancer is most common in people who have had gallstones in the past. Still, gallbladder cancer is very rare in these people.
- Other gallbladder diseases and conditions. Other gallbladder conditions that can increase the risk of gallbladder cancer include porcelain gallbladder, choledochal cyst and chronic gallbladder infection.
These and other symptoms may be caused by gallbladder cancer or by other conditions. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:
- Gallbladder cancer signs and symptoms may include:
- Abdominal pain, particularly in the upper right portion of the abdomen
- Abdominal bloating
- Loss of appetite
- Losing weight without trying
- Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)
Tests that examine the gallbladder and nearby organs are used to detect (find), diagnose, and stage gallbladder cancer.
Procedures that make pictures of the gallbladder and the area around it help diagnose gallbladder cancer and show how far the cancer has spread. The process used to find out if cancer cells have spread within and around the gallbladder is called staging.
In order to plan treatment, it is important to know if the gallbladder cancer can be removed by surgery. Tests and procedures to detect, diagnose, and stage gallbladder cancer are usually done at the same time. The following tests and procedures may be used:
- Physical exam and history : An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
- Liver function tests: A procedure in which a blood sample is checked to measure the amounts of certain substances released into the blood by the liver. A higher than normal amount of a substance can be a sign of liver disease that may be caused by gallbladder cancer.
- Carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) assay: A test that measures the level of CEA in the blood. CEA is released into the bloodstream from both cancer cells and normal cells. When found in higher than normal amounts, it can be a sign of gallbladder cancer or other conditions.
- CA 19-9 assay: A test that measures the level of CA 19-9 in the blood. CA 19-9 is released into the bloodstream from both cancer cells and normal cells. When found in higher than normal amounts, it can be a sign of gallbladder cancer or other conditions.
- Blood chemistry studies: A procedure in which a blood sample is checked to measure the amounts of certain substances released into the blood by organs and tissues in the body. An unusual (higher or lower than normal) amount of a substance can be a sign of disease in the organ or tissue that makes it.
- CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, such as the chest, abdomen, and pelvis, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
- Ultrasound exam: A procedure in which high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) are bounced off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram. An abdominal ultrasound is done to diagnose gallbladder cancer.
- PTC (percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography): A procedure used to x-ray the liver and bile ducts. A thin needle is inserted through the skin below the ribs and into the liver. Dye is injected into the liver or bile ducts and an x-ray is taken. If a blockage is found, a thin, flexible tube called a stent is sometimes left in the liver to drain bile into the small intestine or a collection bag outside the body.
- Chest X-ray: An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
- ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography): A procedure used to x-ray the ducts (tubes) that carry bile from the liver to the gallbladder and from the gallbladder to the small intestine. Sometimes gallbladder cancer causes these ducts to narrow and block or slow the flow of bile, causing jaundice. An endoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is passed through the mouth, esophagus, and stomach into the first part of the small intestine. A catheter (a smaller tube) is then inserted through the endoscope into the bile ducts. A dye is injected through the catheter into the ducts and an x-ray is taken. If the ducts are blocked by a tumor, a fine tube may be inserted into the duct to unblock it. This tube (or stent) may be left in place to keep the duct open. Tissue samples may also be taken.
- Laparoscopy: A surgical procedure to look at the organs inside the abdomen to check for signs of disease. Small incisions (cuts) are made in the wall of the abdomen and a laparoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is inserted into one of the incisions. Other instruments may be inserted through the same or other incisions to perform procedures such as removing organs or taking tissue samples for biopsy. The laparoscopy helps to find out if the cancer is within the gallbladder only or has spread to nearby tissues and if it can be removed by surgery.
- Biopsy: The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer. The biopsy may be done after surgery to remove the tumor. If the tumor clearly cannot be removed by surgery, the biopsy may be done using a fine needle to remove cells from the tumor.
Certain factors affect the prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options. The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:
- The stage of the cancer (whether the cancer has spread from the gallbladder to other places in the body).
- Whether the cancer can be completely removed by surgery.
- The type of gallbladder cancer (how the cancer cell looks under a microscope).
- Whether the cancer has just been diagnosed or has recurred (come back).
Treatment may also depend on the age and general health of the patient and whether the cancer is causing signs or symptoms.
Gallbladder cancer can be cured only if it is found before it has spread, when it can be removed by surgery. If the cancer has spread, palliative treatment can improve the patient's quality of life by controlling the symptoms and complications of this disease.
Taking part in one of the clinical trials being done to improve treatment should be considered. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.
The following stages are used for gallbladder cancer:
Stage 0 (Carcinoma in Situ): In stage 0, abnormal cells are found in the inner (mucosal) layer of the gallbladder. These abnormal cells may become cancer and spread into nearby normal tissue. Stage 0 is also called carcinoma in situ.
Stage I: Cancer has formed and has spread beyond the inner (mucosal) layer to a layer of tissue with blood vessels or to the muscle layer.
Stage II: Cancer has spread beyond the muscle layer to the connective tissue around the muscle.
Stage IIIA: Cancer has spread through the thin layers of tissue that cover the gallbladder and/or to the liver and/or to one nearby organ (such as the stomach, small intestine, colon, pancreas, or bile ducts outside the liver).
Stage IIIB: Cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes and beyond the inner layer of the gallbladder to a layer of tissue with blood vessels or to the muscle layer; or beyond the muscle layer to the connective tissue around the muscle; or through the thin layers of tissue that cover the gallbladder and/or to the liver and/or to one nearby organ (such as the stomach, small intestine, colon, pancreas, or bile ducts outside the liver).
Stage IVA: Cancer has spread to a main blood vessel of the liver or to 2 or more nearby organs or areas other than the liver. Cancer may have spread to nearby lymph nodes.
Stage IVB: Cancer has spread to either: lymph nodes along large arteries in the abdomen and/or near the lower part of the backbone; or to organs or areas far away from the gallbladder.
Treatments for early-stage gallbladder cancer:
Surgery may be an option if you have an early-stage gallbladder cancer. Options include:
- Surgery to remove the gallbladder. Early gallbladder cancer that is confined to the gallbladder is treated with an operation to remove the gallbladder (cholecystectomy).
- Surgery to remove the gallbladder and a portion of the liver. Gallbladder cancer that extends beyond the gallbladder and into the liver is sometimes treated with surgery to remove the gallbladder, as well as portions of the liver and bile ducts that surround the gallbladder.
It's not clear whether additional treatments after successful surgery can increase the chances that your gallbladder cancer won't return. Some studies have found this to be the case, so in some instances, your doctor may recommend chemotherapy, radiation therapy or a combination of both after surgery.
Discuss the potential benefits and risks of additional treatment with your doctor to determine what's right for you.
Treatments for late-stage gallbladder cancer
Surgery can't cure gallbladder cancer that has spread to other areas of the body. Instead, doctors use treatments that may relieve signs and symptoms of cancer and make you as comfortable as possible.
Options may include:
- Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is a drug treatment that uses chemicals to kill cancer cells.
- Radiation therapy. Radiation uses high-powered beams of energy, such as X-rays, to kill cancer cells.
- Clinical trials. Clinical trials use experimental or new medications to treat gallbladder cancer. Talk to your doctor to see whether you're eligible to participate in a clinical trial.
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