Early gallbladder cancer often doesn’t show any symptoms and is usually discovered when a gallstone is removed. As a result, about 20% of gallbladder cancers are found through gallstone removal.6
Because of the lack of symptoms, many tumours are only discovered at an advanced stage. The gallbladder also sits behind your other organs, which makes it difficult for a doctor to feel if it’s swollen or tender.
Symptoms to look out for include nausea, high temperatures, weight loss, pain in your tummy and jaundice.
If the cancer blocks the gallbladder’s bile duct it can stop the flow of bile into the small bowel. This causes bile to flow back into the blood and body tissues, which can lead to jaundice, where the skin and whites of the eyes become yellow, and may become itchy.
The urine can also turn a dark yellow colour, while stools (poo) are paler in appearance.
All of these symptoms do not necessarily indicate gallbladder cancer – they can be caused by other problems such as gallstones or an infection of the gallbladder. But it’s always important to get anything unusual checked by your doctor.
Diagnosing gallbladder cancer
Diagnosis usually begins by seeing your GP who will examine you, ask about your general health and other symptoms. If necessary, your doctor will refer you to a hospital specialist for any tests, expert advice and treatment.
At hospital, your consultant will also want to talk to you about your general health and any previous medical problems. They will then examine you and take blood samples to assess your general health and check that your liver is working properly. Your consultant might also check for signs of jaundice by looking at the whites of your eyes and your skin for any yellowing. They might also look at and feel the lymph glands in your neck and groin to see if they’re swollen.
There are also a number of common tests used to diagnose gallbladder cancer.7
Uses sound waves to build a picture of the gallbladder and its surrounding organs.
CT (computerised tomography) scan
Takes a series of X-rays to create a three-dimensional picture of the inside of the body, using small, safe amounts of radiation.
MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan
Similar to a CT scan, but uses magnetism instead of X-rays to create a detailed image of internal organs.
MRCP (magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography) scan
This is a type of MRI scan that uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to create detailed pictures of your gallbladder, liver, bile ducts and pancreas.
ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangio-pancreatography)
This procedure can be used to take an X-ray picture of the pancreatic duct and bile duct and take biopsies, and may also be used as an opportunity to unblock the bile duct if necessary.
A small operation that allows the doctors to look at the gall bladder, the liver and other internal organs in the area around the gall bladder, performed under a general anaesthetic and requiring a short stay in hospital.
In some cases, the gallbladder may be removed during a laparoscopy, to treat gallstones or chronic inflammation of the gallbladder – the procedure is called a laparoscopic cholecystectomy. But, if gallbladder cancer is found during this operation, the surgeon will change the operation to an open cholecystectomy, where the gall bladder and its surrounding tissues are removed.
Stages of gallbladder cancer
There are four stages of gallbladder cancer:
- Stage 1 | Cancer only affects the top layers of tissues that line the gallbladder. Around 1 in 4 cancers are at this stage when diagnosed
- Stage 2 | Cancer has grown through the muscle layer of the gallbladder and into the connective tissue underneath
- Stage 3 | Cancer has grown through the gallbladder wall and may have spread to the lymph nodes close to the gall bladder
- Stage 4 | Cancer is advanced and may have spread into the main blood vessels leading to the liver, or into organs outside the liver. The cancer may also have spread to distant lymph nodes and organs far away from the gallbladder.
6 Macmillan Cancer Support, Gall bladder cancer http://www.macmillan.org.uk/Cancerinformation
7 Macmillan Cancer Support, Gall bladder cancer http://www.macmillan.org.uk/Cancerinformation