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Clinical Specialties - Cancer

Gallbladder & Bile Duct Cancer

Gallbladder cancer affects the gallbladder, a small organ in the shape of a pear that is located in your upper abdomen next to the liver. The main function of the gallbladder is to store fluid called bile which is produced to help digest and absorb fats in the small bowel (or small intestine).

Bile duct cancer is a rare type of cancer that forms in the small, tube-like bile ducts that transport the bile from the liver and gallbladder to the small intestine.

The gallbladder and bile duct cancer experts form part of our Gastrointestinal Cancer Multidisciplinary Team at Sydney Adventist Hospital use several methods to confirm your diagnosis and determine the stage of your disease. They have experience with early-stage as well as complex cancer; have access to advanced diagnostic tools and a wide range of treatments, including clinical trials. At the same time, our supportive clinicians help you manage side effects to support your quality of life. Explore this section to learn more about gallbladder and bile duct cancer, its side effects and your treatment options.

About gallbladder and bile duct cancer

Most primary gallbladder and bile duct cancers are adenocarcinomas, growths that begin in the mucus glands that line the insides of the gallbladder and bile ducts.

Bile duct tumours are known as cholangiocarcinoma. These tumours can occur in the main bile duct outside the liver (extrahepatic) or within the liver (intrahepatic). Extrahepatic bile duct cancer is the most common.

Intrahepatic bile duct cancer begins within the liver in the smaller duct branches. Only about 5 - 10 percent of all bile duct cancers are intrahepatic. Intrahepatic bile duct cancers are sometimes misdiagnosed as liver cancer, and both are typically treated the same way.

What are the symptoms of gallbladder and bile duct cancer?

Gallbladder and bile duct cancer are difficult to diagnose in the early stages as they cause few symptoms. Often it is not until they reach a more advanced stage and have spread to other organs and tissues that they are diagnosed.

Gallbladder and bile duct cancer symptoms may include:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
  • Unexplained nausea and vomiting
  • Unexplained weakness
  • Unexplained loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Fevers and chills
  • Pain in the right side of the abdomen
  • Darkened urine
  • Pale bowel movements
  • Itchy skin

If you experience any of these symptoms or have concerns, please contact your general practitioner (GP).

How is gallbladder or bile duct cancer diagnosed?

Due to the lack of symptoms in the early stage of the disease, diagnosis of gallbladder and bile duct cancer is difficult. Often it is discovered incidentally, through surgical removal of the gallbladder to treat gallstones or identified incidentally on a CT scan performed for another reason.

In addition, the location of the gallbladder organ behind the liver increases the difficulty of early detection. The type of medical tests will vary depending on the symptoms. Tests examine both the gallbladder and bile duct to help diagnose possible disease.

A physical examination, blood tests, diagnostic imaging, biopsy, or a combination of these methods may be used to make an accurate diagnosis of the stage and extent of gallbladder and bile duct cancer.

Diagnostic imaging tests such as ultrasound, MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), Positron Emission Tomography (PET) or CT (Computed Tomography) scans may be used to examine the internal organs in more detail. This will also help determine the size and location of the cancer and whether it has spread.

Additional procedures such as biopsy, endoscopy, laparoscopy or sometimes even surgery may be required to confirm the diagnosis.

What are my treatment options?

Depending on the stage of the disease and the patient’s health, the San’s multidisciplinary GI team will determine the most appropriate treatment options.

Surgery is generally the preferred treatment for gallbladder and bile duct cancer, and offers the best chance for a cure. Additional treatments including radiation therapy or chemotherapy are often used for patients who are not eligible for surgery or as an additional treatment to patients post-surgery.

Why should I choose the San for treatment?

When you are facing a cancer diagnosis, knowing that you can get expert care, support and treatment all under the one roof, can provide comfort to you and your family.

Resources and useful gallbladder and bile duct links
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Sydney Adventist Hospital Clinical Specialties and Services