What Is Gallbladder Cancer?

Cancer starts when cells in the body start to grow out of control. Cells in nearly any part of the body can become cancer, and can spread to other parts. To learn more about how cancers start and spread, see What Is Cancer?

Gallbladder cancer starts in the gallbladder. To understand this cancer, it helps to know about the gallbladder and what it does.

About the gallbladder

The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ under the liver. Both the liver and the gallbladder are behind the right lower ribs. In adults, the gallbladder is usually about 3 to 4 inches long and normally no wider than an inch.

color illustration of the digestive system which shows the location of the esophagus, stomach, pancreas, rectum, colon, small intestine, gallbladder and liver

The gallbladder concentrates and stores bile, a fluid made in the liver. Bile helps digest the fats in foods as they pass through the small intestine. Bile is made by the liver and is either sent into ducts that carry it to the small intestine, or stored in the gallbladder and released later.

When food (especially fatty food) is being digested, the gallbladder squeezes and sends bile through a small tube called the cystic duct. The cystic duct joins up with the common hepatic duct (which comes from the liver) to form the common bile duct. The common bile duct joins with the main duct from the pancreas (the pancreatic duct) to empty into the first part of the small intestine (the duodenum) at the ampulla of Vater.

illustration showing the location of the common bile duct, liver, pancreas, pancreatic duct, ampula of vater, duodenum, gallbladder, cystic duct, right hepatic duct, left hepatic duct and common hepatic duct

The gallbladder helps digest food, but you don't need it to live. Many people have their gallbladders removed and go on to live normal lives.

Types of gallbladder cancers

Gallbladder cancers rare and nearly all of them are adenocarcinomas. An adenocarcinoma is a cancer that starts in gland-like cells that line many surfaces of the body, including the inside the digestive system.

Papillary adenocarcinoma or just papillary cancer is a rare type of gallbladder adenocarcinoma that deserves special mention. The cells in these gallbladder cancers are arranged in finger-like projections. In general, papillary cancers are less likely to spread into the liver or nearby lymph nodes. They tend to have a better prognosis (outlook) than most other kinds of gallbladder adenocarcinomas.

Other types of cancer can start in the gallbladder, such as adenosquamous carcinomas, squamous cell carcinomas, and carcinosarcomas, but these are very rare.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master's-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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Last Medical Review: July 12, 2018 Last Revised: July 12, 2018

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