National Cancer Institute


Expert-reviewed information summary about the treatment of gallbladder cancer.

This PDQ cancer information summary for health professionals provides comprehensive, peer-reviewed, evidence-based information about the treatment of gallbladder cancer. It is intended as a resource to inform and assist clinicians who care for cancer patients. It does not provide formal guidelines or recommendations for making health care decisions.

This summary is reviewed regularly and updated as necessary by the PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Gallbladder Cancer Treatment

General Information About Gallbladder Cancer

Incidence and Mortality

Estimated new cases and deaths from gallbladder (and other biliary) cancer in the United States in 2017:

  • New cases: 11,740.
  • Deaths: 3,830.

Cancer that arises in the gallbladder is uncommon.

Clinical Features

The most common symptoms caused by gallbladder cancer are jaundice, pain, and fever.

Histopathology and Diagnostics

In patients whose superficial cancer (T1 or confined to the mucosa) is discovered on pathological examination of tissue after gallbladder removal for other reasons, the disease is often cured without further therapy. In patients who present with symptoms, the tumor is rarely diagnosed preoperatively. In such cases, the tumor often cannot be removed completely by surgery and the patient cannot be cured, though palliative measures may be beneficial. For patients with T2 or greater disease, extended resection with partial hepatectomy and portal node dissection may be an option.

Other Prognostic Factors

Cholelithiasis is an associated finding in the majority of cases, but less than 1% of patients with cholelithiasis develop this cancer.

Cellular Classification of Gallbladder Cancer

Some histologic types of gallbladder cancer have a better prognosis than others; papillary carcinomas have the best prognosis. The histologic types of gallbladder cancer include the following:

  • Carcinoma .
  • Adenocarcinoma, not otherwise specified (NOS).
  • Papillary carcinoma.
  • Adenocarcinoma, intestinal type.
  • Clear cell adenocarcinoma.
  • Mucinous carcinoma.
  • Signet-ring cell carcinoma.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma.
  • Adenosquamous carcinoma.
  • Small cell (oat cell) carcinoma.*
  • Undifferentiated carcinoma.*
    • Spindle and giant cell types.
    • Small cell types.
  • Carcinoma, NOS.
  • Carcinosarcoma.
  • Other (specify).

*Grade 4 by definition.

Stage Information for Gallbladder Cancer

Definitions of TNM

The American Joint Committee on Cancer has designated staging by the TNM classification to define gallbladder cancer.

Localized (Stage I)

These types of patients have cancer confined to the gallbladder wall that can be completely resected. They represent a minority of cases of gallbladder cancer. Patients with cancers confined to the mucosa have 5-year survival rates of nearly 100%. Patients with muscular invasion or beyond have a survival of less than 15%. Regional lymphatics and lymph nodes should be removed along with the gallbladder in such patients.

Unresectable (Stage II–IV)

With the exception of some patients with focal stage IIA disease, these types of patients have cancer that cannot be completely resected. They represent the majority of cases of gallbladder cancer. Often the cancer invades directly into adjacent liver or biliary lymph nodes or has disseminated throughout the peritoneal cavity. Spread to distant parts of the body is not uncommon. At this stage, standard therapy is directed at palliation. Because of its rarity, no specific clinical trials exist; however, such patients can be included in trials aimed at improving local control by combining radiation therapy with radiosensitizer drugs.

Localized Gallbladder Cancer

When gallbladder cancer is previously unsuspected and is discovered in the mucosa of the gallbladder at pathologic examination, it is curable in more than 80% of cases. Gallbladder cancer suspected before surgery because of symptoms, however, usually penetrates the muscularis and serosa and is curable in fewer than 5% of patients.

One study reported on patterns of lymph node spread from gallbladder cancer and outcomes of patients with metastases to lymph nodes in 111 consecutive surgical patients in a single institution from 1981 to 1995.[] The standard surgical procedure was removal of the gallbladder, a wedge resection of the liver, resection of the extrahepatic bile duct, and resection of the regional (N1 and N2) lymph nodes. Kaplan-Meier estimates of the 5-year survival for node negative tumors pathologically staged as T2 to T4 were 42.5% ± 6.5% and for similar node positive tumors, 31% ± 6.2%.

Standard treatment options:

Treatment options under clinical evaluation:

  • Clinical trials are exploring ways of improving local control with radiation therapy combined with radiosensitizer drugs. When possible, such patients are appropriately considered candidates for these studies.

Current Clinical Trials

Check the list of NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with localized gallbladder cancer. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.

General information about clinical trials is also available from the NCI website.

Unresectable, Recurrent, or Metastatic Gallbladder Cancer

These patients are not curable. Significant symptomatic benefit can often be achieved with relief of biliary obstruction. A few patients have very slow-growing tumors and may live several years. Patients with unresectable, recurrent, or metastatic gallbladder cancer should be considered for inclusion in clinical trials whenever possible. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI website.

Treatment options:

Other drugs and drug combinations await evaluation in randomized trials.

Current Clinical Trials

Check the list of NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with unresectable gallbladder cancer, recurrent gallbladder cancer and metastatic gallbladder cancer. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.

General information about clinical trials is also available from the NCI website.

Changes to This Summary (02/02/2017)

The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.

General Information About Gallbladder Cancer

Updated statistics with estimated new cases and deaths for 2017 (cited American Cancer Society as reference 1).

This summary is written and maintained by the PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of NCI. The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or NIH. More information about summary policies and the role of the PDQ Editorial Boards in maintaining the PDQ summaries can be found on the About This PDQ Summary and PDQ® - NCI's Comprehensive Cancer Database pages.

About This PDQ Summary

Purpose of This Summary

This PDQ cancer information summary for health professionals provides comprehensive, peer-reviewed, evidence-based information about the treatment of gallbladder cancer. It is intended as a resource to inform and assist clinicians who care for cancer patients. It does not provide formal guidelines or recommendations for making health care decisions.

Reviewers and Updates

This summary is reviewed regularly and updated as necessary by the PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Board members review recently published articles each month to determine whether an article should:

  • be discussed at a meeting,
  • be cited with text, or
  • replace or update an existing article that is already cited.

Changes to the summaries are made through a consensus process in which Board members evaluate the strength of the evidence in the published articles and determine how the article should be included in the summary.

The lead reviewer for Gallbladder Cancer Treatment is:

  • Jennifer Wo, MD (Massachusetts General Hospital)

Any comments or questions about the summary content should be submitted to Cancer.gov through the NCI website's Email Us. Do not contact the individual Board Members with questions or comments about the summaries. Board members will not respond to individual inquiries.

Levels of Evidence

Some of the reference citations in this summary are accompanied by a level-of-evidence designation. These designations are intended to help readers assess the strength of the evidence supporting the use of specific interventions or approaches. The PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board uses a formal evidence ranking system in developing its level-of-evidence designations.

Permission to Use This Summary

PDQ is a registered trademark. Although the content of PDQ documents can be used freely as text, it cannot be identified as an NCI PDQ cancer information summary unless it is presented in its entirety and is regularly updated. However, an author would be permitted to write a sentence such as “NCI’s PDQ cancer information summary about breast cancer prevention states the risks succinctly: [include excerpt from the summary].”

The preferred citation for this PDQ summary is:

PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. PDQ Gallbladder Cancer Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated . Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/gallbladder/hp/gallbladder-treatment-pdq. Accessed . [PMID: 26389371]

Images in this summary are used with permission of the author(s), artist, and/or publisher for use within the PDQ summaries only. Permission to use images outside the context of PDQ information must be obtained from the owner(s) and cannot be granted by the National Cancer Institute. Information about using the illustrations in this summary, along with many other cancer-related images, is available in Visuals Online, a collection of over 2,000 scientific images.

Disclaimer

Based on the strength of the available evidence, treatment options may be described as either “standard” or “under clinical evaluation.” These classifications should not be used as a basis for insurance reimbursement determinations. More information on insurance coverage is available on Cancer.gov on the Managing Cancer Care page.

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