What is gallbladder cancer?

Symptoms act like common digestive problems, so are often overlooked

gallbladder cancer

Some of the risk factors for gallbladder cancer are a family history, being older, female, or being Mexican American.

Gallbladder cancer is rare. In fact, the American Cancer Society notes there will only be about 4,000 new cases of gallbladder cancer this year. Our gallbladder stores and secretes brownish liquid called bile which aids in the digestion of food. Since the gallbladder is hidden under the liver and not easily seen on imaging or felt, gallbladder cancer is usually discovered in the later stages. Only about 1 of 5 gallbladder cancers is found in the early stages, when the cancer has not yet spread beyond the gallbladder.

Signs and symptoms

The signs and symptoms of gallbladder cancer (if present) are often related to its role in aiding digestion.

  • Jaundice or yellowing of the skin and eyes can occur. This happens because a gallbladder tumor causes a blockage of the bile duct, resulting in the bile building up in the body.
  • The bile build-up can also cause urine to darken and stool to lighten.
  • It can cause itching as it is an irritant to the skin.
  • Pain or swelling in the stomach area can results from the tumor pressing on nerves or the gallbladder swelling in size.
  • Nausea and weight loss can be present too, often in the later stages of the disease.

A person who is having any of these symptoms should see a healthcare professional for a complete history and physical.

Risk factors

While we do not know the exact cause of gallbladder cancer, there are some factors that can make it more likely a person will develop it including:

  • Having gallstones
  • Family history of gallbladder cancer
  • Bring overweight or obese
  • Female gender
  • Increasing age
  • Mexican American or Native American heritage
  • Smoking


The treatment of gallbladder cancer depends upon the stage (how advanced it is), patient’s age and overall health, and whether they are experiencing any symptoms. Typically it is treated with surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or a combination of these. A bypass or stent may be inserted into the bile duct to keep it open and prevent the bile from building up in the body. While this has no effect on the cancer, it can help the patient feel better and improve symptoms. In addition, enrollment in a clinical trial which involves testing new therapies or a new use for an approved therapy is always an option too. Working with a healthcare provider to discuss treatment options and establish goals is the first step in treating this rare cancer.

Take the next step:

  • Learn more about gallbladder cancer from the National Cancer Institute
  • Review information on gallbladder cancer from the American Society of Clinical Oncology
  • Search for a clinical trial near you in the National Institutes of Health Clinical Trials database
  • Still have questions? Call the nurses at the University of Michigan Cancer AnswerLine™. They can help patients or their loved ones find a clinical trial or provide insights into the newest and latest cancer treatments. Feel free to call at 1-800-865-1125 or send an e-mail.

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The Cancer AnswerLine™ nurses are experienced in oncology care, including helping patients and their families who have questions about cancer. These registered oncology nurses are available by calling 800-865-1125 Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Your call is always free and confidential.



Cancer-center-informal-vertical-sig-150x150The University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 1,000 doctors, nurses, care givers and researchers are united by one thought: to deliver the highest quality, compassionate care while working to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration. The center is among the top-ranked national cancer programs, and #1 in Michigan according to U.S. News & World Report. Our multidisciplinary clinics offer one-stop access to teams of specialists for personalized treatment plans, part of the ideal patient care experience. Patients also benefit through access to promising new cancer therapies.