February is Gallbladder and Bile Duct Awareness Month, so we are taking the opportunity to share some information about the disease. To start, many of us have little knowledge of the gallbladder, besides its association with gallstones, which are those often-painful cholesterol masses that can develop in the gallbladder.
The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ under the liver that stores bile. Bile is made in the liver and helps digest the fats in our foods. Both the gallbladder and the ducts that connect it to the liver, pancreas and small intestine can develop cancer. Most commonly, these cancers begin in gland-like cells and are called adenocarcinomas.
The American Cancer Society estimates 11,740 new cases of gallbladder cancer and nearby large bile ducts in the United States for 2017. More than 32 percent of those cases are predicted to cause death.
Cause & Risk Factors
While the exact causes of gallbladder cancer have not been determined, chronic gallbladder inflammation of the gallbladder and ducts is a common link among risk factors. This inflammation may be causing the cancer.
The following conditions post an increased risk for developing gallbladder cancer:
- Having gallstones or a condition known as porcelain gallbladder where the wall of the gallbladder becomes covered with calcium deposits
- Being female
- Being obese
- Being over 65
- Being Mexican American or Native American
- Having choledochal cysts
- Having bile duct abnormality
- Having gallbladder polyps
- Having primary sclerosing cholangitis
- Having typhoid
- Having a family history of gallbladder cancer
Detection & Prevention
There are currently no tests that can detect gallbladder cancer, so it is not usually found until it has become advanced and is causing symptoms. Only about 1 in 5 gallbladder cancers is found in the early stages, when the cancer has not yet spread beyond the gallbladder and the chances for survival are highest.
5-year survival rates drop to 28 percent for Stage II gallbladder cancer and just 8 percent for Stage III when the tumor has grown beyond the gallbladder into nearby structures.
Unfortunately, there is no known way to prevent gallbladder cancer, as most of the risk factors are beyond our control. However, you can lower your risk of developing the disease by:
- Getting to and staying at a healthy weight
- Removing the gallbladder if you have gallstones
(Note: While almost all gallbladder cancers were preceded by gallstones, many more people have gallstones who never develop the cancer, which is why many physicians do not condone removing the gallbladder. However, you can live well without a gallbladder by making diet and lifestyle changes.
Signs & Symptoms
The various signs and symptoms of gallbladder cancer may be caused by many other conditions. Therefore, they do not necessarily indicate the presence of the cancer. If you experience any of the below — particularly if you have had gallstones or have other risk factors — consult with your doctor right away.
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
- Pain above the stomach
- Nausea and vomiting
- Lumps in the abdomen
Treatment for gallbladder cancer is influenced by the staging of the disease, your overall health and other factors. The main types off treatment are:
After treatment, a healthy diet and exercise regime are important both for recovery and for long-term health. Other healthy behaviors, including removing tobacco products and limiting alcohol consumption, can have positive effects on your health that can extend beyond your risk of gallbladder cancer or other cancers.