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What Is Gallbladder 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 oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as editors and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Abou-Alfa GK, Jarnagin W, Lowery M, et al. Liver and bile duct cancer. In: Neiderhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA. Elsevier; 2014:1373-1395.

National Cancer Institute. Gallbladder Cancer Symptoms, Tests, Prognosis, and Stages (PDQ®)–Patient Version. March 22, 2018. Accessed at on June 18, 2018.

Nuzzo G, Clemente G, Cadeddu F, et al. Papillary carcinoma of the gallbladder and anomalous pancreatico-biliary junction. Report of three cases and review of the literature. Hepatogastroenterology. 2005;52(64):1034-1038.

Patel T, Borad MJ. Carcinoma of the biliary tree. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2015:715-735.

Last Revised: July 12, 2018

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