Gallbladder and Bile Duct Cancer: Patient Education

Cancer Facts

According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology:

  • In 2011 an estimated 9,760 adults (4,450 men and 5,310 women) in the United States will be diagnosed with gallbladder and other biliary cancers. It is estimated that 3,320 deaths (1,240 men and 2,080 women) from these diseases will occur this year.
  • Bile duct cancer is a rare disease. Each year, an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with bile duct cancer. The number of new cases of bile duct cancer is increasing, mostly due to rising rates of intrahepatic (inside the liver) bile duct cancer. The reason for this increase is not known. It may be due to the use of more accurate tests to diagnose this type of cancer. Previously, people may have mistaken intrahepatic bile duct cancer for a different type of cancer.

Gallbladder cancer is a growth of malignant cells that starts in the tissues of your gallbladder and forms a tumor. The growing tumor can cause symptoms by pressing on surrounding structures as well as spread (metastasize) to other parts of your body.

Bile duct cancer is a growth of malignant cells that starts in the tissues of your bile duct. The growing tumor may result in blockage of the bile drainage system, press on surrounding structures and spread (metastasize) to other parts of your body.

The Gallbladder

Your gallbladder is part of your gastrointestinal (GI) system.  Your gallbladder is a small organ, about 3 to 4 inches long. It’s pear shaped and lies in the upper part of your abdomen, just under your liver.

The purpose of your gallbladder is to store bile, a fluid (made by your liver) that helps digest fat in the food you eat. The gallbladder is not necessary for survival and people live and eat more or less normally after its removal.

How Gallbladder Cancer Starts

Different cancers starting in different parts of your gallbladder have diverse symptoms with different treatment options.

Cancer of the gallbladder generally begins in the inner layer of your gallbladder and then grows outward through the other layers. If it’s not detected early, it may spread through your gallbladder wall into your lymph nodes and other nearby organs. It may also spread into your lungs, liver and bones.

Types of Gallbladder Cancer

There are several types of gallbladder cancer:

  • Adenocarcinoma
    • About 90 percent of gallbladder cancers
    • Begins in the innermost lining of the gallbladder
  • Adenosquamous carcinoma
  • Squamous cell carcinoma
  • Small cell carcinoma
  • Sarcomas

This document addresses adenocarcinoma of the gallbladder, the most common type.

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The Bile Duct

When your body digests food, your gallbladder releases bile through the cystic duct to the common bile duct, a 4-inch tube that connects your gallbladder to your liver and small intestine. Ducts within your liver are called intrahepatic bile ducts; these ducts join and form the common hepatic duct.

Your bile duct is part of your GI system. It’s a thin tube, about 4 to 5 inches long, connecting your liver to your small intestine. The primary purpose of your bile duct is to move bile from your liver to your small intestine.

The bile duct system is comprised of several parts:

  • Ductules – tiny tubes in the liver
  • Intrahepatic bile ducts – tubes within your liver that drain bile from your liver
  • Cystic duct – tube that carries bile from your gallbladder
  • Common bile duct – tube that carries bile from your liver and your gallbladder (through your pancreas) to your small intestine
  • Distal bile ducts – the portion of the common bile duct located closer to your small intestine

When your body digests food, your gallbladder releases bile through the cystic duct to the common bile duct, a 4-inch tube that connects your gallbladder to your liver and small intestine. Ducts within your liver are called intrahepatic bile ducts; these ducts join and form the common hepatic duct.

How Bile Duct Cancer Starts

Cancer of the bile duct generally can begin anywhere in the bile duct system. If it’s not detected early, it may spread to your lymph nodes and other nearby organs. It may also spread into your lungs, liver and bones.

Types of Bile Duct Cancer

The following are types of bile duct cancer:

  • Extrahepatic
    • Outside the liver
    • Around 65 percent of bile duct cancers begin nearer to the location where the bile duct joins the liver (called perihilar cancer or Klastin’s tumor)
    • Around 25 percent of bile duct cancers begin at the spot where the bile duct joins the small intestine (called distal bile duct cancer)
  • Intrahepatic
    • Inside the liver
    • Around 5 to 10 percent of bile duct cancers begin within the liver

Around 95 percent of all bile duct cancers are adenocarcinomas. They are treated similarly to gallbladder cancer.

Cancer of the bile duct is also known as cholangiocarcinoma.

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Related Resources

Gallbladder Cancer

Bile Duct Cancer

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