What is gallbladder cancer?

Gallbladder cancer is a cancer that’s found anywhere in the gallbladder.The gallbladder is a small organ in the top part of your tummy that helps you digest your food.Gallbladder cancer is often found when someone is having treatment for another condition, such as gallstones.How serious gallbladder cancer is depends on where it is in the gallbladder, how big it is, if it has spread and your general health.

Main symptoms of gallbladder cancer

Gallbladder cancer may not have any symptoms, or they might be hard to spot.

Symptoms of gallbladder cancer include:

  • your skin or the whites of your eyes turn yellow (jaundice), you may also have itchy skin, darker pee and paler poo than usual
  • loss of appetite or losing weight without trying to
  • a high temperature, or you feel hot or shivery
  • a lump in your tummy

Other symptoms can affect your digestion, such as:

  • feeling or being sick
  • aching pain in the right side of your tummy, sometimes described as a “dragging feeling”
  • sharp pain in your tummy
  • a very swollen tummy that is not related to when you eat

If you have another condition like irritable bowel syndrome you may get symptoms like these regularly.

You might find you get used to them. But it’s important to be checked by a GP if your symptoms change, get worse, or do not feel normal for you

Who is more likely to get gallbladder cancer

Anyone can get gallbladder cancer. It’s not always clear what causes it.

You might be more likely to get it if you:

  • are over the age of 75, it’s most common in people over 85
  • are a woman
  • have certain medical conditions, such as gallstones, growths (polyps) in your gallbladder, porcelain gallbladder, abnormal bile ducts, long-term swelling of the gallbladder or bile ducts, or diabetes
  • have a brother, sister or parent who had gallbladder cancer
  • have Latin American or Asian heritage

Many gallbladder cancers are linked to your lifestyle.

How to reduce your chance of getting gallbladder cancer

You cannot always prevent gallbladder cancer. But making healthy changes can lower your chances of getting it.

  • try to lose weight if you are overweight
  • try to cut down on alcohol – avoid drinking more than 14 units a week
  • try to quit smoking

You will need more tests and scans to check for gallbladder cancer if the GP refers you to a specialist.

These tests can include:

  • blood tests
  • scans, like an ultrasound scan (sometimes from inside your body using an endoscope), CT scan, PET scan, MRI scan, or a type of X-ray called a cholangiography
  • collecting a small sample of cells from the gallbladder (called a biopsy) to be checked for cancer
  • a small operation to look inside your tummy, called a laparoscopy
  • a test called an ERCP –

You may not have all these tests.

These tests can also help find problems in other nearby organs. Such as your bile ducts, pancreas or liver.

Getting your results

It can take several weeks to get the results of your tests.

Try not to worry if your results are taking a long time to get to you. It does not definitely mean anything is wrong.

You can call the hospital or GP if you are worried. They should be able to update you.

A specialist will explain what the results mean and what will happen next. You may want to bring someone with you for support.

If you’re told you have gallbladder cancer

Being told you have gallbladder cancer can feel overwhelming. You may be feeling anxious about what will happen next.

Gallbladder cancer is sometimes found when you are having an operation to remove your gallbladder.

This might be because you have another condition, such as gallstones.

You might have been having tests and scans after being referred to a specialist by a GP.

A group of specialists will look after you throughout your diagnosis, treatment and beyond.

Your team will include a clinical nurse specialist who will be your main point of contact during and after treatment.

You can ask them any questions you have.

Next steps

If you’re told you have gallbladder cancer, the specialists will use the results of some of the tests and scans to help find out the size of the cancer and how far it’s spread (called the stage).

You may need to have more tests done.

Find out more about what cancer stages and grades mean.

The specialists will use the results of these tests and work with you to decide on the best treatment plan for you.

Treatment for gallbladder cancer

Gallbladder cancer is often treatable, but it can be difficult to treat.

The treatment you have will depend on:

  • the size and type of gallbladder cancer you have
  • where it is
  • if it has spread
  • your general health

It may include surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

The specialist care team looking after you will:

  • explain the treatments, benefits and side effects
  • work with you to create a treatment plan that is best for you
  • help you manage any side effects, including changes to your diet to help you digest your food

You’ll have regular check-ups during and after any treatments. You may also have tests and scans.

If you have any symptoms or side effects that you are worried about, talk to your specialists. You do not need to wait for your next check-up.

Surgery

Your treatment will depend on if the cancer can be removed or not.

Surgery to remove gallbladder cancer

If gallbladder cancer is found early and it has not spread, you may be able to have surgery to remove it.

This will usually involve removing all of the gallbladder, as well as parts of other organs or lymph nodes around it. Lymph nodes are part of your body’s immune system.

Surgery to help control symptoms of gallbladder cancer

If the cancer has spread too far and cannot be removed, you may have surgery to help control some symptoms of gallbladder cancer.

This can include surgery to:

  • unblock the bile duct or stop it getting blocked, which helps with jaundice
  • bypass a blockage in the bile duct, this helps with jaundice and feeling or being sick

The aim of these operations is to help improve your symptoms, not to cure the cancer.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses medicines to kill cancer cells.

You may have chemotherapy for gallbladder cancer:

  • before surgery to help make the cancer smaller
  • after surgery to get rid of any remaining cancer and help stop the cancer coming back
  • to help make the cancer smaller, and control and improve the symptoms if you are not able to have surgery because you are very unwell, or the cancer cannot be removed by surgery

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays of radiation to kill cancer cells.

Radiotherapy is not often used to treat gallbladder cancer. But you may have radiotherapy to help control and improve the symptoms of advanced cancer.

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