The Gallbladder

Gallbladder/Bile Duct Cancer

What is gallbladder/bile duct cancer?

Gallbladder cancer is a type of abnormal cell growth that starts in the gallbladder. The disease is relatively uncommon and is usually discovered at an advanced stage when there is a poor prognosis. Gallbladder cancer often goes undetected until its later stages due to a lack of symptoms.

Bile duct cancer is also known as cholangiocarcinoma. It is a type of cancer that develops in the bile ducts which carry digestive fluid. This is a relatively rare type of cancer that largely occurs in people over the age of 50. There are several different types of cholangiocarcinoma; intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma, which occurs in the sections of the bile duct within the liver; hilar cholangiocarcinoma, which occurs in the bile ducts outside the liver; and distal cholangiocarcinoma, which develops in the part of the bile duct near the small intestine.

woman holding her stomach in pain

What causes gallbladder/bile duct cancer?

It is not clear why healthy cells in the gallbladder develop mutations when gallbladder cancer occurs, but there are several risk factors attached to gallbladder cancer. You may have an increased risk of gallbladder cancer if; you are female, you have a history of gallstones, you are over the age of 50, you have had other gallbladder conditions in the past, or if you have inflammation of the bile ducts.

Like gallbladder cancer, the cause of bile duct cancer is not yet known. Factors that may increase your risk of bile duct cancer include; having chronic liver disease, having primary sclerosing cholangitis, having a liver parasite (which can occur from eating raw fish), being over the age of 50, being a smoker, and having had bile duct problems since birth.

Symptoms of gallbladder/bile duct cancer

Among the symptoms associated with gallbladder cancer are; abdominal bloating, abdominal pain, jaundice (the yellowing of the skin and eye whites), and unexplained weight loss.

Among the symptoms associated with bile duct cancer are; abdominal pain, jaundice, itchy skin, tiredness, unexplained weight loss and white coloured stools.

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms outlined above and are concerned, you should make an appointment to see your doctor.

Treatment options for gallbladder/bile duct cancer

After being diagnosed using tests and assessments such as imaging tests and blood tests, there are a number of treatment options for gallbladder cancer. Surgery can be an option for early-stage gallbladder cancer; including the removal of the gallbladder, and a procedure to remove both the gallbladder and a portion of the liver. If the cancer is relatively small, you may not need additional treatment if it can be removed successfully. Other potential treatments include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy and targeted drug therapy.

Bile duct cancer can be diagnosed using imaging tests, liver function tests, a biopsy, tumour markers, or an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). Treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, a liver transplant, biliary drainage and photodynamic therapy.

Palliative care may be provided to people with gallbladder cancer or bile duct cancer and their families to support them during treatment.