What is gallbladder cancer?

The gallbladder is a small, hollow, pear-shaped pouch about 8cm long and about 2.5cm wide. It lies underneath the right side of your liver, in your upper abdomen.

Two tubes connect to the gallbladder, the small and large bile ducts. Together these make up the common bile duct. The gallbladder and bile ducts form your biliary tract. This is called the biliary tree or biliary system.

Cancer of the gallbladder is quite a rare disease in the UK. You may hear it called biliary cancer.

Diagram showing the anatomy of the gallbladder
Diagram showing the position of the gallbladder and bile ducts

What it does

The gallbladder concentrates and stores bile. Bile is a fluid made in the liver. It’s made from cholesterol, water, bilirubin and bile salts. Bilirubin is what gives bile its greenish colour. It comes from the breakdown of used red blood cells.

Bile helps you to break down (digest) fats in your small bowel (intestine). When you eat fatty foods, the fats are broken down (digested) in your stomach and intestines. To get the bile to the food in your gut, your body either:

  • releases it from the liver and down the bile ducts, straight into your small intestine
  • stores it first in your gallbladder, which releases bile into your common bile duct as you need it

Your gallbladder is not an essential part of your body. You can live without it. So after having it taken out, you’re still able to digest your food.

Lymph nodes near the gallbladder

Like all other parts of the body, the area containing the gallbladder also contains lymph nodes. You may hear these called lymph glands. They are small bean shaped glands that are part of the lymphatic system. They help to control infection by filtering the lymphatic fluid. They remove anything foreign to the body, including bacteria and viruses.

The lymph nodes are often the first place that cancer cells reach when they break away from a tumour. So surgeons usually remove them during cancer surgery and send them to the lab where a specialist called a pathologist examines them closely for cancer cells.

Removing and checking lymph nodes is part of staging the cancer. The stage of a cancer is important because it helps doctors to decide the most suitable treatment.

How common it is

Gallbladder cancer is rare. Around 1100 people are diagnosed in the UK each year.

Who gets it

Gallbladder cancer is more common in women than in men. Around 70 out of every 100 cases (around 70%) are diagnosed in women.

Last reviewed: 
02 Jan 2020
  • Cancer Incidence from Cancer Intelligence Statistical Information Team at Cancer Research UK  (2016 - 2018 UK average) 
    Accessed January 2022

  • Principles and practice of oncology (9th edition)
    De Vita, V.T., Lawrence, T.S. and Rosenberg S.A.
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2011

  • Biliary cancer: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up
    ESMO Guidelines Committee
    Annals of Oncology (2016) 27 (suppl 5): v28-v37

  • Cancer and its Management (7th edition)

    Tobias, J and Hochhauser, D

    Wiley Blackwell 2015

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