Gallbladder cancer is a relatively rare cancer that’s usually diagnosed in an advanced stage. Symptoms often don’t appear until the cancer grows large or spreads.

The American Cancer Society estimates that about 4,880 people will receive a diagnosis of gallbladder cancer in the United States in 2023. About 80% of these people will be diagnosed once the cancer has spread beyond the gallbladder.

Gallbladder cancer tends to be difficult to diagnose in the early stages since there are no reliable screening tests. Small tumors usually don’t cause symptoms and can’t be felt.

Doctors can use various imaging tests to help diagnose gallbladder cancer and rule out other conditions.

Most times, before surgery to remove a tumor, doctors will perform a biopsy to see what type of tumor it is. But with gallbladder cancer, a doctor may choose not do a biopsy before removing it since it can be risky. Ultimately, a biopsy will be done, but it may be handled during surgery or another procedure, instead of before.

Keep reading to learn more about the symptoms of gallbladder cancer and how its diagnosed.

Are symptoms the same for men and women?

Gallbladder cancer causes similar symptoms in men and women. Gallbladder cancer is about 3–4 times more common in women than men in the United States. Women are also much more likely to develop gallstones, which are one of the top risk factors for gallbladder cancer.

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Early stage

Early stage gallbladder cancer often doesn’t cause any noticeable symptoms. According to the American Cancer Society, many gallbladder cancers diagnosed in the early stages are found unexpectedly after removing the gallbladder for gallstones.

Late stage

Late stage gallbladder cancer that has grown large or spread beyond the gallbladder might cause symptoms such as:

Is gallbladder cancer a fast-growing (aggressive) cancer?

Gallbladder cancer tends to be aggressive and progresses rapidly. Cancer may form following approximately 15 years of chronic gallbladder inflammation.

Despite improvements in treatment, the outlook for people with advanced gallbladder cancer remains poor. Compared with people without gallbladder cancer, people with cancer that’s spread to nearby tissues are only about 28% as likely to live for 5 years. The odds drop to about 3% if the cancer spreads to distant areas.

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Gallbladder cancer isn’t often diagnosed in the early stages. It’s usually found incidentally when your gallbladder is removed to treat gallstones. Gallbladders removed for gallstones are almost always tested for cancer.

About 80% of gallbladder cancers are diagnosed after they’ve spread beyond the gallbladder. About 44.4% of gallbladder cancers diagnosed in the United States between 2011 to 2020 were metastatic, meaning they had spread to distant tissues.

Gallbladder cancer tests

A doctor may first perform or order tests such as:

  • reviewing your personal and family medical history
  • reviewing your symptoms
  • aphysical exam
  • blood tests to look for tumor markers and measure liver gallbladder and liver function

Imaging tests

Your doctor may order imaging if they think you have a gallbladder problem. You may receive imaging tests such as:

Imaging can help doctors visualize the extent of your cancer or differentiate gallbladder cancer from other conditions. Many other conditions can cause similar symptoms, such as:

Gallbladder biopsies

Your doctor may want to perform a biopsy to confirm your diagnosis and see what type of gallbladder cancer you have. They can take a biopsy in 3 ways:

  • with a long thin needle
  • during laparoscopy
  • during cholangiography

Your doctor may not want to perform a biopsy if there’s no evidence that the cancer has spread. In this case, your gallbladder will be checked for cancer after it’s removed.

Gallbladder cancer occurs when gene mutations in gallbladder cells cause them to replicate too quickly. These genetic mutations may be inherited from your parents or develop throughout your life.

Gallstones are one of the leading risk factors for the development of gallbladder cancer. As many as 80% with gallbladder cancer have gallstones when they’re diagnosed.

The risk of developing gallbladder cancer increases with:

  • gallbladder size
  • severity of symptoms
  • length of time since symptoms began

Most people with gallstones never develop gallbladder cancer.

Other risk factors

Women develop gallbladder cancer about 3–4 times more often than men in the United States. People of Native American or Southeast Asian ethnicity are at a disproportionally high risk compared with people of other ethnicities.

Other risk factors for gallbladder cancer include:

  • porcelain gallbladder, where the walls of your gallbladder become covered in calcium
  • obesity
  • increasing age, especially being over the age of 65
  • bile duct cysts
  • other bile duct abnormalities
  • gallbladder polyps
  • typhoid
  • family history

Risk factors with less evidence include:

Language matters

You’ll notice that the language used to share stats and other data points in this article is pretty binary, fluctuating between the use of “male” and “female” or “men” and “women.” Although we typically avoid language like this, specificity is key when reporting on research participants and findings.

Unfortunately, the studies and surveys referenced in this article didn’t report data on, or include, participants who were transgender, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, agender, or genderless.

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Gallbladder polyps and cancer

Gallbladder polyps are small growth on your gallbladder. About 60–90% are called pseudopolyps. Another 5–10% are called inflammatory polyps. Both types have almost no risk of becoming cancer.

Rarer adenomatous polyps are more likely to become cancerous. It’s often recommended to have them removed when they grow above 1 centimeter (0.45 inches) across.

In a 2020 study in which researchers followed a group of more than 600,000 people for 20 years, they found that polyps smaller than 1 centimeter were rarely associated with cancer.

Gallbladder cancer is a relatively rare cancer that often isn’t detected until it grows large or spreads to other organs. Symptoms usually don’t appear until the advanced stages.

Most symptoms of gallbladder cancer can have many different causes. It’s important to see your doctor any time you have unexplained and persistent symptoms such as jaundice, abdominal pain, or nausea.