Gallbladder cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells that starts in the gallbladder. The gallbladder is a small (around one-inch wide and three-inch long), hollow, pear-shaped organ that sits under the right lobe of the liver. Its function is to store and concentrate the digestive fluid called the bile. Gallbladder cancer is rare and affects more women than men. Almost 75% of gallbladder cancer cases and deaths occur in women.
The survival rate of gallbladder cancer primarily depends upon the stage of the cancer. Thus, the earlier the cancer is diagnosed and treated, the higher the survival rates. Unfortunately, gallbladder cancers are often diagnosed late leading to poor outcomes. The reasons for late diagnosis are many including the fact that the gallbladder is a tiny organ hiding under the liver, which may hide the cancer for a longer time. Studies show that around 43 percent of gallbladder cancers were detected after the cancer spread to nearby organs or lymph nodes. Furthermore, around 42 percent of gallbladder cancers were found after the cancer had already spread to distant organs or lymph nodes.
The survival rate for cancers is often expressed as a five-year relative survival rate. Thus, for a specific stage of gallbladder cancer, if the five-year relative survival rate is 50 percent, it means that people who have gallbladder cancer are, on average, about 50 percent as likely as people without the disease to live for at least five years after being diagnosed.
According to the American Cancer Society, five-year relative survival rates for various stages of gallbladder cancer are tabulated:
Gallbladder cancer stage (SEER stage*)
Five-year relative survival rate
All SEER stages combined
*SEER = Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results
The survival rate may also depend upon the patient’s general health or the presence of certain health conditions such as high blood pressure, heart diseases, or diabetes. The response to therapy may also vary in different patients, thus affecting the survival rates.
What causes gallbladder cancer?
The exact cause of gallbladder cancer is not known. The cancer results when the cells of the bladder undergo a change in their genetic material (mutation). This causes the abnormal cells to grow and divide uncontrollably causing gallbladder cancer. Gallbladder cancer generally begins in the inner layers of the organ. It then grows to spread to the surrounding tissue eventually spreading to the liver and other nearby as well as distant organs. Certain conditions may increase the risk of gallbladder cancer. These include:
- Having a personal or family history of gallstones
- Female gender
- Older age
- Certain ethnic groups such as American Indian, Alaska Natives, or Black ethnicity
- Obese individuals
- A diet rich in fatty or processed foods
- Certain health conditions such as gallbladder polyps, primary sclerosing cholangitis, and gallbladder infections or inflammation
- Exposure to certain workplace chemicals such as chemicals used in textile and rubber industries
What are the signs and symptoms of gallbladder cancer?
Gallbladder cancer may not show any signs in its initial stages. Symptoms generally include:
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