About Gallbladder Cancer

About Gallbladder Cancer

At Penn's Abramson Cancer Center, patients with gallbladder cancer receive their care from a multidisciplinary team of nationally recognized experts in the diagnosis, treatment and research of gastrointestinal cancer.

Gallbladder cancer is cancer that forms in the tissue of the gallbladder, a pear-shaped organ located near the liver in the upper abdomen that collects and stores bile.

Primary cancer of the gallbladder is very rare. Most gallbladder cancers are adenocarcinomas, meaning they are located in the surface area tissue of the organ. They can be further classified, depending on how the cancer appears under a microscope, as follows:

  • Papillary
  • Nodular
  • Tubular

Because navigating a cancer diagnosis and treatment options can be difficult, patients who wish to connect with a cancer specialist at Penn Medicine can speak with a cancer nurse, who can help them make an appointment with the right physician.

To connect with a cancer nurse at Penn Medicine, patients should call 800-789-PENN (7366).


Gallbladder Cancer Risk and Prevention

Some risk factors for cancer, like age and family history, cannot be prevented. Patients who feel they are at risk may benefit from consulting with a risk assessment specialist within one of Penn Medicine's programs at the Abramson Cancer Center or the Abramson Cancer Center at Pennsylvania Hospital at Pennsylvania Hospital.

Gallbladder Cancer Risk Factors

Risk factors increase the chance of developing gallbladder cancer. Having a risk factor, or even several, does not mean that someone will develop cancer.

There are different kinds of risk factors. Some factors cannot be changed, while steps can be taken to reduce others.

  • Smoking. Smoking has been linked to an increased risk of developing gallbladder cancer.
  • Sex. Gallbladder cancer affects more women than men.
  • Age. The risk of getting gallbladder cancer increases as people age. Most patients diagnosed are between 62 and 66 years old.
  • A history of gallstones. Although gallstones are associated with finding gallbladder cancer, less than 1 percent of patients with gallstones develop cancer.
  • Obesity. Those who are obese or overweight may be at an increased risk for gallbladder cancer.
  • Race. Native Americans have a higher risk of developing gallbladder cancer.
  • Other diseases or conditions. Porcelain gallbladder, choledochal cysts, abnormalities of the bile ducts or gallbladder polyps may increase a person's risk for developing gallbladder cancer.

Gallbladder Cancer Prevention

There are no proven methods for preventing gallbladder cancer. However there are some ways people can help prevent cancer and maintain a healthy lifestyle:

Gallbladder Cancer Risk Assessment

Penn Medicine offers programs for patients who want to determine their risk of developing gastrointestinal cancer through:

  • The Penn High Risk GI Cancer Genetics Program

These programs offer knowledge about the presence of genetic risk factors for cancer and provide patients with important, sometimes life-saving options.

Types of Gallbladder Cancer

  • Adenocarcinomas
    • Papillary adenocarcinoma
    • Nodular adenocarcinoma
    • Tubular adenocarcinoma
  • Other types of gallbladder cancer

Adenocarcinoma

Most gallbladder cancers are adenocarcinomas. An adenocarcinoma is a cancer that starts in the cells that have gland-like properties, and lives within the tissues that line the inside of the digestive system.

Papillary Adenocarcinoma

Papillary adenocarcinoma is a type of gallbladder cancer that accounts for approximately 6 percent of all gallbladder cancers. Papillary adenocarcinomas appear to have finger-like projections when viewed under a microscope.

Nodular Adenocarcinoma

Nodular adenocarcinoma is a type of gallbladder cancer that looks like nodes, or nodular projections when viewed under a microscope.

Tubular Adenocarcinoma

Tubular adenocarcinoma is a type of gallbladder cancer that looks like tiny tubes, or polyps when viewed under a microscope.

Other Types of Gallbladder Cancer

Other types of gallbladder cancer may develop in the gallbladder, but are very rare. These include adenosquamous carcinomas, signet ring cell, squamous cell carcinomas, small cell carcinomas and sarcomas.

Gallbladder Cancer Symptoms

Gallbladder cancer is difficult to detect and diagnose. Gallbladder cancer is usually not discovered until it becomes more advanced and causes symptoms, or if it is found during a procedure for another condition. Symptoms of gallbladder cancer include:

  • Abdominal pain, especially on the right side under the ribcage
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Bloating
  • Fever
  • Jaundice, or a yellowish hue to the skin and whites of eyes
  • Gallbladder enlargement
  • Loss of appetite
  • Losing weight without dieting
  • Severe itching
  • Black, tarry stools

Staging Gallbladder Cancer

Staging systems provide doctors with a common language for describing tumors. After cancer is first diagnosed, a series of tests are used to investigate the extent of the cancer and to see whether it has spread to other parts of the body from where it started. Staging is a way of recording the size and growth of a cancer, and determining the plan for treatment. By understanding the stage of their cancer, patients can make informed decisions about their treatment.

Physicians use the “TNM” system to stage gallbladder cancer. Staging gallbladder cancer attempts to discover the following:

  • The size of the tumor
  • Whether the cancer has spread to nearby tissues
  • Whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body

Gallbladder Cancer Treatment at Penn

After being diagnosed with gallbladder cancer, patients at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center may be evaluated through the Gastrointestinal Cancer Evaluation Center (GICEC). The center provides patients with expert support and evaluation to discuss treatment options and individualized treatment plans.

ADAM Image

Patients with pancreatic cancer are treated by a multidisciplinary team of cancer specialists who see more patients with gastrointestinal (GI) cancers in one year than many doctors see in their careers.

The physicians of Penn Medicine’s GI cancer program are nationally recognized for their expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

Penn’s GI cancer treatment team includes:

  • Nationally recognized medical experts with years of experience in diagnosing and treating GI cancer.
  • Nurses with advanced training and experience in gastrointestinal cancer.
  • Patient navigation specialists to help patients navigate the health system.
  • Registered dietitians to provide nutrition counseling.
  • Cancer counselors to provide individual or family counseling for issues many cancer patients face.
  • Rehabilitation therapists who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of physical effects from cancer and its treatment.

Patients at Penn Medicine can benefit from participating in clinical trials that take place at Penn. Patients interested in learning more about clinical trials should speak with someone on their treatment team.

Oncology Navigation Specialists

Every step of cancer treatment – from cancer diagnosis, to surgery and treatment to forming a survivorship plan – comes with different needs and issues that should be addressed.

Oncology Navigation Specialists at the Abramson Cancer Center are available to make the patient experience as seamless as possible. As experts in navigating complex health care situations, Patient Navigation specialists serve as a consistent point of contact and a reliable source for advice, support and direction for patients and families. They can help in a variety of ways including; provide emotional support, identify resources, and ensure access to information, support services, educational programs and community resources.

Learn more about Patient Navigation specialists at the Abramson Cancer Center.

Penn Pancreatic and Biliary Center

Patients at Penn Medicine with gallbladder cancer also benefit from the Penn Pancreatic and Biliary Center, one of the busiest pancreatic and biliary surgery programs in the United States.

Studies have shown successful treatment of gallbladder cancer requires accurate diagnosis and cancer surgeons who are experienced in complex surgeries. The center combines that expertise with leading-edge research and technology, giving patients at Penn Medicine a better chance for positive outcomes.

Learn more about the Penn Pancreatic and Biliary Center.

Diagnosing Gallbladder Cancer

An accurate cancer diagnosis from trusted cancer specialists is the first step in getting personalized treatment options to treat gallbladder cancer.

Patients who choose Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center, benefit from a multidisciplinary team of cancer specialists including gastroenterologists, radiologists, pathologists and surgeons who work together to provide a diagnosis and treatment plan custom designed for each patient with gallbladder cancer.

Cancer specialists at Penn Medicine are highly experienced in using the most advanced techniques for diagnosing gallbladder cancer and are actively researching better and more precise ways to detect gallbladder cancer.

Navigating a cancer diagnosis and treatment options can be difficult, patients who wish to connect with a cancer specialist at Penn Medicine can speak with a cancer nurse, who can help them make an appointment with the right person. Penn Medicine’s contact center has experienced cancer nurses available and ready to guide patients in finding the cancer specialist right for them.

To connect with a cancer nurse at Penn Medicine, patients should call 800-789-PENN (7366).

Read more Diagnosing Gallbladder Cancer

Gallbladder Cancer Treatment

Following the diagnosis and staging of gallbladder cancer, cancer specialists at Penn Medicine's Abramson Cancer Center develop a personalized treatment plan. Penn's treatment options for gallbladder cancer include:

  • Surgery
    • Cholecystectomy (gallbladder removal)
    • Partial hepectomy
    • Surgical biliary bypass
    • Percutaneous transhepatic biliary drainage
    • Endoscopic stent placement
  • Radiation therapy
    • 3-D conformal radiation therapy
    • Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT)
    • Volumetric-modulated arc therapy
    • Proton therapy
    • Photdynamic therapy (PDT)
    • Brachytherapy
  • Chemotherapy and biologic therapies
    • Chemotherapy
    • Chemoradiotherapy
    • Liver-directed biologic therapies
  • Clinical trials
  • Other treatments

Because navigating a cancer diagnosis and treatment options can be difficult, patients who wish to connect with a cancer specialist at Penn Medicine can speak with a cancer nurse, who can help them make an appointment with the right physician.

To connect with a cancer nurse at Penn Medicine, patients should call 800-789-PENN.

Read more Gallbladder Cancer Treatment

Gallbladder Cancer Survivorship

Survivorship programs at Penn Medicine are a distinct phase of gallbladder cancer care and are designed to help patients' transition from their gallbladder cancer treatment routine to a post-cancer care lifestyle. There are more than 12 million cancer survivors living and thriving today as a result of advances in cancer treatment. However, cancer treatments can result in physical, emotional and financial complications long after the therapy is complete.

Read more Gallbladder Cancer Survivorship


Suzi F. Garber

Suzi F. Garber, of Reading, PA., a neuroendocrine tumor patient at the Abramson Cancer Center, writes about her experience so that others might benefit from her story and become proactive advocates for themselves and their loved ones.

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Clinical Trials

Clinical Trials

Clinical trials are studies to find new ways to prevent, detect and treat cancer. The purpose of each clinical trial is to answer a specific question. Our physicians carefully design these studies to find new ways to improve care and quality of life ... more about clinical trials