Gallbladder Cancer

The gallbladder is the small organ located under the liver that stores and secretes bile into the small intestine by way of the bile duct. This process is stimulated by eating; therefore, problems with the gallbladder often come with symptoms related to eating. Gallbladder cancer is an abnormal growth that begins in the lining of the gallbladder. The most common predisposing factor associated with gallbladder cancer is chronic inflammation and/or gallstones, although less than one percent of people with gallstones go on to develop gallbladder cancer.

Gallbladder cancer can go undetected until late stages due to a lack of specific symptoms that alarm patients and healthcare providers. Subtle symptoms associated with gallbladder cancer include taste disturbances and nausea. Many gallbladder cancers are detected  when the gallbladder is removed for gallstones. Advanced stage gallbladder cancer often manifests as a liver mass and/or jaundice.

One or more of the following methods may be used to diagnose gallbladder cancer:

  • Clinical examination. Your doctor looks for yellowing of the complexion, known as jaundice.
  • Bloodwork. Your doctor looks for subtle changes in liver function tests.
  • Cross-section imaging with computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Both tests detect abnormalities related to gallbladder cancer. They also help healthcare providers determine eligibility for resection.
  • Fine needle aspiration or biopsy. Tissue or fluid is removed with a needle for examination under a microscope.
  • Endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) and endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP).These advanced imaging technologies take pictures of the gastrointestinal tract. EUS combines endoscopy with the imaging capabilities of ultrasound to get high-quality images of organs deep inside the body. ECRP, a minimally invasive imaging procedure, can diagnose conditions of the liver, gallbladder, bile ducts and pancreas. This is particularly helpful when gallbladder cancer is causing jaundice.
  • Genetic counseling. You and your doctor discuss your personal and family medical history of certain gastrointestinal conditions and the possibility of genetic testing.
  • Genetic testing. Your doctor identifies specific genetic factors that increase your risk for developing gastrointestinal cancers.

The Indiana University Health Melvin & Bren Simon Cancer Center team has more than a dozen highly specialized physicians. We also offer instant access to leading edge diagnostic technology, allowing you to receive comprehensive diagnostic services and treatment recommendations in one visit.

Gallbladder Cancer Treatment

Unlike many cancer specialists, our multidisciplinary team focuses solely on gastrointestinal cancers.

Members include:

  • Medical oncologists
  • Radiation oncologists
  • Surgical oncologists
  • Gastroenterologists
  • Radiologists
  • Pathologists

These specialists work together to develop a customized treatment plan for you. Your treatment plan considers the location and extent of your cancer, plus your general health and life situation. We also provide a nurse coordinator to help you understand and adapt to a potentially complex plan.

Our multidisciplinary team provides a full range of treatment options.

  • Surgery. Cancer is removed in an operation.
  • Chemotherapy. Destroys cancer cells with special medicine.
  • Radiation therapy. Uses high energy, penetrating waves or particles to destroy cancer cells and/or prevent their growth.
  • Stent placement. A support device is placed in the gastrointestinal tract to keep it from closing.
  • Palliative care. Improves quality of life, with relief from pain and other symptoms.

Radiation therapy treatments can include:

  • Computed tomography (CT) simulation. A radiation planning process that uses a CT scan to define tumor targets and internal anatomy in three dimensions, allowing the radiation oncologist to target the tumor without harming healthy tissue.
  • Four-dimensional CT simulation. A CT simulation that shows internal anatomy changes (such as changes in tumor location with the breathing cycle), allowing the radiation oncologist to accurately target the tumor and avoid damage to healthy tissue.
  • Image guided radiation therapy (IGRT). Uses radiographic imaging to precisely target tumors while sparing healthy tissue.
  • Cone-beam computed tomography (CBCT). An IGRT technique that uses a limited CT scan prior to treatment to target internal anatomy in three dimensions.
  • Three-dimensional conformal radiotherapy. Guided by a computer-generated three-dimensional picture of the tumor, allowing the highest possible dose of radiation while protecting healthy tissue.
  • Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). An advanced radiation technology that uses a computerized optimization algorithm to deliver radiation near or around radiation-sensitive tissue.
  • Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT). Special equipment that delivers precise, high-dose radiation to a tumor without affecting healthy tissue.
  • Proton beam radiation. Particle radiation that treats tumors located near critical radiation-sensitive tissue.

Gallbladder Cancer Research

Clinical research at the IU Health Melvin & Bren Simon Cancer Center is dedicated to finding new, more effective treatments for gastrointestinal cancers. This research is essential for ongoing improvements to current treatment options. We are at the forefront of cancer care discoveries. Our patients are among the first to benefit from this expertise through access to all current treatments plus new clinical trial options.

Current research in gallbladder cancer includes studying biomarkers for risk by evaluating bile and serum in at-risk patients.

More information about cancer research can be found on the Indiana University School of Medicine website.