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Some gallbladder cancers are found after the gallbladder has been removed because of gallstones or to treat chronic (long-term) inflammation. Gallbladders removed for those reasons are always looked at under a microscope to see if there's cancer cells in them.
Most gallbladder cancers, though, aren't found until a person goes to a doctor because they have symptoms.
If there's reason to suspect you might have gallbladder cancer, your doctor will want to take a complete medical history to check for risk factors and to learn more about your symptoms.
Your doctor will examine you to look for signs of gallbladder cancer and other health problems. The exam will focus mostly on the abdomen (belly) to check for any lumps, tenderness, or fluid build-up. The skin and the white part of the eyes will be checked for jaundice (a yellowish color). Sometimes, cancer of the gallbladder spreads to lymph nodes, causing a lump that can be felt beneath the skin. Lymph nodes above the collarbone and in several other locations may be checked.
If symptoms and/or the physical exam suggest you might have gallbladder cancer, tests will be done. These might include lab tests, imaging tests, and other procedures.
Lab tests might be done to find out how much bilirubin is in your blood. Bilirubin is the chemical that causes jaundice. Problems in the gallbladder, bile ducts, or liver can raise the blood level of bilirubin.
The doctor may also do tests for albumin, liver enzymes (alkaline phosphatase, AST, ALT, and GGT), and certain other substances in your blood. These may be called liver function tests. They can help diagnose liver, bile duct, or gallbladder disease.
Tumor markers are substances made by cancer cells that can sometimes be found in the blood. People with gallbladder cancer may have high blood levels of the markers called CEA and CA 19-9. Usually the blood levels of these markers are high only when the cancer is in an advanced stage . These markers are not specific for gallbladder cancer – that is, other cancers or even some other health conditions also can make them go up.
These tests can sometimes be useful after a person is diagnosed with gallbladder cancer. If the levels of these markers are found to be high, they can be followed over time to help tell how well treatment is working.
Imaging tests use x-rays, magnetic fields, or sound waves to create pictures of the inside of your body. Imaging tests can be done for a number of reasons, including:
People who have (or might have) gallbladder cancer may have one or more of these tests:
Ultrasound uses sound waves and their echoes to create images of the inside of the body. A small instrument called a transducer gives off sound waves and picks up their echoes as they bounce off organs inside the body. The echoes are converted by a computer into an image on a screen.
Abdominal ultrasound: This is often the first imaging test done in people who have symptoms like jaundice or pain in the right upper part of their abdomen (belly). This is an easy test to have and it doesn't use radiation. You simply lie on a table while a technician moves the transducer on the skin over the right upper abdomen.
This type of ultrasound can also be used to guide a needle into a suspicious area or lymph node so that cells can be removed (biopsied) and looked at under a microscope. This is called an ultrasound-guided needle biopsy.
Endoscopic or laparoscopic ultrasound: In these techniques, the doctor puts the ultrasound transducer inside the body and closer to the gallbladder. This gives more detailed images than a standard ultrasound. The transducer is on the end of a thin, lighted tube that has a camera on it. The tube is either passed through the mouth, down through the stomach, and near the gallbladder (endoscopic ultrasound) or through a small surgical cut on your belly (laparoscopic ultrasound).
If there's a tumor, ultrasound might help the doctor see if and how far it has spread into the gallbladder wall, which helps in planning for surgery. Ultrasound may be able to show if nearby lymph nodes are enlarged, which can be a sign that cancer has reached them.
A CT scan uses x-rays to make detailed cross-sectional images of your body. It can be used to
Like CT scans, MRI scans show detailed images of soft tissues in the body. But MRI scans use radio waves and strong magnets instead of x-rays. A contrast material called gadolinium may be injected into a vein before the scan to see details better.
MRI scans provide a great deal of detail and can be very helpful in looking at the gallbladder and nearby bile ducts and other organs. Sometimes they can help tell a benign (non-cancer) tumor from one that's cancer. Special types of MRI scans can also be used in people who may have gallbladder cancer:
A cholangiogram is an imaging test that looks at the bile ducts to see if they are blocked, narrowed, or dilated (widened). This can help show if someone might have a tumor that's blocking a duct. It can also be used to help plan surgery. There are several types of cholangiograms, each of which has different pros and cons.
Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP): This is a way to get images of the bile ducts using the same type of machine used for standard MRIs. Neither an endoscope or an IV contrast material is used, unlike other types of cholangiograms. Because it's non-invasive (nothing is put in your body), doctors often use MRCP if they just need images of the bile ducts. This test can’t be used to get biopsy samples of tumors or to place stents (small tubes) in the ducts to keep them open.
Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP): In this procedure, a doctor passes a long, flexible tube (endoscope) down your throat, through your stomach, and into the first part of the small intestine. This is usually done while you are sedated (given medicine to make you sleepy). A small catheter (tube) is passed out of the end of the endoscope and into the common bile duct. A small amount of contrast dye is injected through the catheter. The dye helps outline the bile ducts and pancreatic duct as x-rays are taken. The images can show narrowing or blockage of these ducts. This test is more invasive than MRCP, but it has the advantage of allowing the doctor to take samples of cells or fluid for testing. ERCP can also be used to put a stent (a small tube) into a duct to help keep it open.
Percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography (PTC): To do this procedure, the doctor puts a thin, hollow needle through the skin of your belly and into a bile duct inside the liver. You will get medicine through an IV line to make you sleepy before the test. A local anesthetic is also used to numb the area before putting the needle. A contrast dye is then injected through the needle, and x-rays are taken as it passes through the bile ducts. Like ERCP, this test can also be used to take samples of fluid or tissues or to put a stent (small tube) into a duct to help keep it open. Because it's more invasive, PTC is not usually used unless ERCP has already been tried or can’t be done for some reason.
Angiography or an angiogram is an x-ray test used to look at blood vessels. A thin plastic tube called a catheter is threaded into an artery and a small amount of contrast dye is injected to outline blood vessels. Then x-rays are taken. The images show if blood flow in an area is blocked anywhere or affected by a tumor, as well as any abnormal blood vessels in the area. The test can also show if a gallbladder cancer has grown through the walls of certain blood vessels. This information is mainly used to help surgeons decide whether a cancer can be removed and to help plan the operation.
Angiography can also be done with a CT scan (CT angiography) or an MRI (MR angiography). These tend to be used more often because they give information about the blood vessels without the need for a catheter. You may still need an IV line so that a contrast dye can be injected into the bloodstream during the imaging.
Laparoscopy is a type of surgery. The doctor puts a thin tube with a light and a small video camera on the end (a laparoscope) into a small incision (cut) in the front of your abdomen (belly) to look at the gallbladder, liver, and other nearby organs and tissues. (Sometimes more than one cut is made.) This is usually done in the operating room while drugs are used to put you into a deep sleep and not feel pain (general anesthesia) during the surgery.
Laparoscopy can help doctors plan surgery or other treatments, and can help determine the stage (extent) of the cancer. If needed, doctors can also put special instruments in through the incisions to take out biopsy samples for testing.
Laparoscopy is often used to take out your gallbladder. This operation is called a laparoscopic cholecystectomy. If gallbladder cancer is found or suspected during that operation, surgeons usually change to an open cholecystectomy (removal of the gallbladder through a larger cut in the abdomen). The open method lets the surgeon see more and may lower the chance of releasing cancer cells into the abdomen when the gallbladder is removed. The use of the open procedure depends on the size of the cancer and whether surgery can remove it all.
During a biopsy, the doctor removes a tissue sample to be looked at with a microscope to see if cancer (or some other disease) is present. For most types of cancer, a biopsy is needed to make a diagnosis. Biopsies are also used to help find out how far the cancer has spread. This is important when choosing the best treatment plan.
But a biopsy isn't always done before surgery to remove a gallbladder tumor. Doctors are often concerned that sticking a needle into the tumor or otherwise disturbing it without completely removing it might allow cancer cells to spread.
If imaging tests show a tumor in the gallbladder and there are no clear signs that it has spread, the doctor may decide to proceed directly to surgery and treat the tumor as a gallbladder cancer. (See Surgery for Gallbladder Cancer.) In this case, the gallbladder is checked for cancer after it's been removed.
In other cases, a doctor may feel that a biopsy of a suspicious area in the gallbladder is the best way to know for sure if it's cancer. For example, imaging tests may show that a tumor has spread or grown too large to be removed completely by surgery. Many gallbladder cancers are not removable by the time they're first found.
There are many ways to take biopsy samples of the gallbladder.
During cholangiography: If ERCP or PTC is being done, a sample of bile may be collected during the procedure to look for cancer cells in the fluid.
During laparoscopy: As noted earlier, biopsy samples can be taken during laparoscopy. Laparoscopy lets the doctor see the surface of the gallbladder and nearby areas and then take small pieces of tissue from any suspicious areas.
Needle biopsy: If the cancer is too big or has spread to much to be removed with surgery, a needle biopsy may be done to confirm the diagnosis and help guide treatment. For this test, a thin, hollow needle is put in through the skin and into the tumor without making a cut in the skin. (The skin is numbed first with a local anesthetic.) The needle is usually guided into place using ultrasound or CT scans. When the images show that the needle is in the tumor, cells and/or fluid are drawn into the needle and sent to the lab to be tested.
In most cases, this is done as a fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy, which uses a very thin needle attached to a syringe to suck out (aspirate) a sample of cells.Sometimes, the FNA doesn't get enough cells for a definite diagnosis, so a core needle biopsy, which uses a slightly larger needle to get a bigger sample, may be done.
For more information on biopsies and how samples are tested, see Testing Biopsy and Cytology Specimens for Cancer.
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Last Revised: July 12, 2018