If diagnosed early, gallbladder cancer can be cured with surgery. However, this type of cancer spreads quickly and often isn’t diagnosed until its later stages.

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Gallbladder cancer is sometimes curable, but only when someone is diagnosed early enough that surgeons can remove all the cancer. It’s a rare and serious type of cancer. While it starts in the gallbladder, it can spread quickly (metastasize).

There are four main stages of gallbladder cancer:

  • Stage 1: The cancer is confined to the inner layers of the gallbladder.
  • Stage 2: The cancer has spread locally to the outer layers of the gallbladder.
  • Stage 3: The cancer has spread regionally to nearby lymph nodes or organs, like the liver, small intestine, or stomach.
  • Stage 4: The cancer has spread to several nearby organs or distant areas of the body.

The stage of gallbladder cancer significantly affects outcomes. When working with your doctor to develop a treatment plan, it’s important to understand gallbladder cancer staging and the overall goals of treatment.

If gallbladder cancer is diagnosed before it spreads, surgery can sometimes cure it. A procedure known as cholecystectomy allows surgeons to remove the gallbladder from the body.

If the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes or tissue, a surgeon may also remove these tissues. This is known as a radial cholecystectomy.

Both of these procedures are typically done laparoscopically. This means the surgeon makes a small incision in the stomach and uses a camera and special instruments to remove the gallbladder. It’s less invasive than open surgery.

Surgery is the only known cure for gallbladder cancer. All of the cancer cells must be removed for it to be considered a cure. This is known as “getting clear margins.”

If the cancer has spread too far beyond the gallbladder, removing the organ is not a cure. But the procedure may still be done to help reduce cancer symptoms and prolong life expectancy.

Later stages

Gallbladder cancer can still be treated at later stages. Treatment can help slow the growth of cancer cells and help relieve symptoms.

Learn more about late-stage gallbladder cancer.

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A doctor may recommend other therapies along with surgery to help improve gallbladder cancer treatment outcomes:

  • Radiation therapy involves high energy X-rays or other forms of radiation applied to the affected area to kill cancerous cells or prevent them from growing.
  • Chemotherapy involves taking strong oral or injected medications to kill cancerous cells or stop them from dividing.

Your doctor may also recommend joining a clinical trial to gain access to promising new treatments that are still being tested.

Each gallbladder cancer treatment comes with its own risks, benefits, and potential side effects. It’s important to work with your doctor to discuss your options.

Palliative care

Your doctor may also recommend palliative care as a part of your gallbladder cancer treatment plan. Palliative care includes medication and lifestyle strategies to help manage cancer symptoms and treatment side effects, like pain and nausea.

Palliative care is not a cure for gallbladder cancer. It’s meant to help you feel more comfortable and improve your quality of life, no matter the stage of your cancer.

Gallbladder cancer is considered an aggressive form of cancer. It tends to spread over 5–15 years. In that time, it can spread quickly to nearby lymph nodes and the liver, often before it’s detected.

Gallbladder cancer is hard to detect in its earlier stages because it often has no symptoms. There are no routine screening tests for gallbladder cancer. Doctors also can’t feel early-stage gallbladder cancer during a physical exam when it’s still small.

As a result, gallbladder cancer has often spread by the time it’s diagnosed.

The survival rates for gallbladder cancer vary based on the stage at the time of diagnosis. According to the American Cancer Society, the most recent estimated 5-year survival rates for gallbladder cancer are:

  • 69% for localized gallbladder cancer
  • 28% for regional gallbladder cancer
  • 3% for distant gallbladder cancer

Survival rates are broken down into percentages of how many people with that stage of cancer are likely to live for 5 years. The earlier the cancer is diagnosed, the better the outlook.

That said, as newer treatment options become available for gallbladder cancer, these outcomes may improve.

Surgery is the only option for curing gallbladder cancer. It needs to be done at an early stage to ensure the best possible outcome.

However, even at later stages, gallbladder cancer treatment can help slow or stop the growth of cancer cells and help improve quality of life.

It’s important to talk with your doctor to determine the best course of action based on your individual circumstances.