The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ situated in the upper right section of the stomach cavity, just below the liver. Its function is to aid in the digestion of fats by storing and releasing bile into the small intestine.
Gallbladder cancer is relatively uncommon. As with any other type of cancer, early detection is the key to achieving the best possible outcome and quality of life. Currently, there is no routine screening test available that can reliably detect gallbladder cancer, and gallbladder tumors can be difficult to spot in medical images, such as ultrasounds and computed tomography (CT) scans. In many cases, gallbladder cancer does not produce noticeable signs until it reaches an advanced stage, and even then, the symptoms can be vague, such as fever, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain and bloating. For all of those reasons, it is important for everyone to take steps to help prevent gallbladder cancer.
Know Your Risk
Before developing a gallbladder cancer prevention strategy, it can be helpful to gain an understanding of your individual risk level. Certain genetic and lifestyle characteristics can increase the likelihood that you will develop gallbladder cancer. For instance, some known risk factors include:
- Gallstones – Hardened, pebble-like masses of cholesterol and other substances can form in the gallbladder and cause chronic inflammation (cholecystitis), which can sometimes lead to cancer. However, while gallstones are relatively common, gallbladder cancer is quite rare, even among people who have gallstones.
- Gallbladder inflammation – In addition to gallstones, other conditions can cause chronic gallbladder inflammation, which is a significant cancer risk factor. Those conditions include porcelain gallbladder, which occurs when calcium deposits collect on the walls of the gallbladder, and gallbladder polyps, which are small benign growths that form on the inner gallbladder walls.
- Choledochal cysts – Benign, bile-filled sacs can sometimes form along the common bile duct, which carries bile from the liver and gallbladder to the small intestine. Sometimes, choledochal cysts undergo changes that cause them to become cancerous.
- Bile duct abnormalities – In addition to the gallbladder, the pancreas is another organ that releases digestive fluids through a duct that connects to the common bile duct into the small intestine. Some people have a genetic defect that causes pancreatic fluids to flow backward (reflux) into the common bile duct. The resulting buildup of pancreatic fluids and bile can damage the ducts and increase the risk of gallbladder cancer.
- Primary sclerosing cholangitis – Chronic bile duct inflammation (cholangitis) can lead to the development of scar tissue (sclerosis), which further increases the risk of gallbladder cancer.
- Excess body weight – Being overweight or obese is a risk factor for many types of cancer, including gallbladder cancer, as well as gallstones.
- Advanced age – Most people who are diagnosed with gallbladder cancer are age 65 or older.
Many of the known risk factors for gallbladder cancer, such as advanced age and genetic bile duct defects, cannot be controlled. As such, there is no surefire way to prevent it. However, there are steps you can take that may help lower your risk.
Scientists in the general medical community are still working to gain a better understanding of the precise mechanisms that are at play in the development of many types of cancer, including gallbladder cancer, and also how cancer can be prevented. However, it is well-established that certain lifestyle factors can significantly influence overall cancer risk. Some potentially effective cancer-prevention strategies include:
- Achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight – Excess body fat can fuel cancer growth by causing inflammation and affecting hormone levels throughout the body. The best way to lose weight is to combine regular exercise with a nutritious diet.
- Staying physically active – By incorporating moderate to vigorous physical activity into your daily routine, you can lower your risk of cancer and other chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Choose an enjoyable activity that makes you sweat and makes your heart beat faster. Some excellent, health-enhancing forms of exercise include walking, cycling, swimming and running. As a general goal, aim for 30 minutes of exercise per day.
- Consuming a healthy diet – Healthy eating means consuming plenty of plant-based foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, and avoiding sugars, red meats and processed meats, such as hotdogs and salami. It also means choosing whole grains, such as brown rice and whole-wheat pasta, over refined grains, such as white rice and white pasta.
- Consuming alcoholic beverages in moderation (if at all) – As a general guideline, many experts recommend limiting alcohol consumption to two drinks per day for men, and one drink per day for women.
- Quitting tobacco – Tobacco smoke is replete with toxins and carcinogens. In addition to reducing cancer risk, quitting tobacco can reduce your risk of heart disease, lung disease and many other serious health conditions. If you need help quitting, there are effective tobacco treatment programs available to help you get there. It is also important to avoid exposure to secondhand smoke.
With regard to prophylactic gallbladder removal surgery (cholecystectomy), most physicians do not recommend it as a cancer prevention strategy. However, cholecystectomy may be considered to address gallstones that are causing pain or infection or to treat porcelain gallbladder.
If you would like individualized advice on what you can do to help prevent gallbladder cancer, we encourage you to talk with a specialist in the Gastrointestinal Oncology Program at Moffitt Cancer Center. To request an appointment, please call 1-888-663-3488 or complete our new patient registration form online.