The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ below the liver that collects and stores bile (a fluid that aids digestion of fat) that’s produced by the liver. As the liver makes bile, it flows through various ducts in the liver, converging in the common hepatic duct, and through the cystic duct leading to the gallbladder where bile is stored.
When bile is needed for digestion, it’s released from the gallbladder, flowing through the common bile duct, leading to the small intestine. Bile duct cancer occurs when cells in these bile ducts (common hepatic duct or common bile duct) become malignant.
Gallbladder cancer begins in the innermost of three layers of tissue and spreads outward as it grows. The gallbladder’s three main layers of tissue are:
- The mucosal (inner) layer
- The muscularis (middle) layer
- The serosal (outer) layer
Although gallbladder and bile duct cancers are different cancer types, we frequently discuss them together because diagnosis and treatment for each type are similar.
Symptoms for both gallbladder and bile duct cancers include:
- Jaundice, or yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes
- Abdominal pain
Other symptoms of gallbladder cancer include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Lumps in abdomen
In addition, bile duct cancer may lead to itchy skin.
Risk factors for developing gallbladder cancer include:
- Being female
- Being Native American
Risk factors for developing bile duct cancer include having certain gastrointestinal conditions, such as:
- Primary sclerosing cholangitis
- Chronic ulcerative colitis
- Choledochal cysts
- Infection with a Chinese liver fluke parasite
Cholangiocarcinoma is a rare type of cancer that can start anywhere along the bile ducts and can cause blockage. Because they typically do not cause any unique symptoms, cholangiocarcinomas can be misdiagnosed and are often discovered incidentally during medical tests.
For instance, abnormal results from a blood test taken following a change in blood pressure or cholesterol medication might be the first indication that something is wrong. Other times, the tumors are found during imaging tests, such as ultrasounds or CT scans, being performed for non-related conditions.
While there are no screening tests for this type of cancer, patients diagnosed with something in the liver, such as a bile duct stricture, should be seen by a team of doctors that specialize in both benign (non-cancerous) and malignant (cancerous) conditions of the liver and biliary tract. You do not need a tissue diagnosis to be referred to a place like Roswell Park that treats patients with cholangiocarcinoma and related cancers.