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Symptoms

Find out about the possible symptoms of gallbladder cancer and when you should see your doctor.

General symptoms

Gallbladder cancer doesn’t usually cause symptoms in its early stages. So by the time you know it’s there, it might be at a more advanced stage than some other types of cancer. At diagnosis, it has often spread outside the gallbladder itself to areas nearby.

It can be difficult for doctors to feel if your gallbladder is swollen or tender when they examine you. The gallbladder lies behind other organs deep inside your body, so it can be difficult to feel. Many early stage cancers of the gallbladder are found by chance. For example, when someone is having their gallbladder taken out to treat gallstones.

You may get a number of symptoms with gallbladder cancer. Most of these happen in the later stages of the disease.

Other illnesses apart from gallbladder cancer can also cause these symptoms. Even so, it is important that you see your doctor. Whatever is causing your symptoms needs treating.

Tummy (abdominal) pain

You can get an aching feeling on your right side if you have gallbladder cancer. Some people describe it as a dragging feeling. If the cancer or gallstones block the bile duct, you will have a sharper pain.

Feeling or being sick

This is very common in the later stages of gallbladder cancer.

Over half the people diagnosed with gallbladder cancer will feel or be sick quite often at some stage of their illness. This is usually fairly easy to control with anti sickness drugs.

Jaundice

Jaundice means either that your liver is not working properly, or that there is a blockage in your biliary system. The symptoms can include:

  • yellowing skin and whites of the eyes
  • severe itching in some people
  • darkened urine
  • pale coloured stools (bowel movements)

Jaundice is caused by a build up of bile salts in the blood. If cancer blocks the common bile duct, the bile can't drain away into the bowel as it normally would. So bile salts build up in your blood and body tissues.

The bile salts make your skin and the whites of your eyes look yellow, and your skin itch (doctors call this itching pruritis). They also make your urine darker than normal. Because the bile is not passing into your bowel, your stools will be much paler than normal.

Nearly half the people diagnosed with gallbladder cancer have jaundice. This is often a sign that the cancer is in its later stages.

Remember - having jaundice does not always mean you have cancer. A viral infection of the liver (hepatitis) is a much more common cause of jaundice than gallbladder cancer.

Gallbladder enlargement

If your bile duct is blocked, your gallbladder will fill up with bile and get swollen and enlarged.

Your doctor may be able to feel this during a physical examination but is more likely to see it on an ultrasound scan.

Other symptoms

Less common symptoms include:

  • loss of appetite (anorexia)
  • loss of weight without dieting
  • a swollen tummy (abdomen)

Abdominal pain is a sign of many diseases that are far more common than gallbladder cancer. But it is best to be safe. So if you have any of these symptoms, do see your doctor. Most health problems are much easier to treat when they are found early.

When to see your GP

See your GP if you have any of the symptoms above. Your symptoms are unlikely to be cancer. But it's important to get them checked by a doctor.

The earlier a cancer is picked up, the easier it is to treat. And the more likely it is that the treatment will be successful.

Last reviewed: 
06 Jun 2014
  • Biliary cancer: ESMO clinical practice guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow up. 
    Eckel F, Brunner T, Jelic S (2010)
    Annals of Oncology (supplement 5): v65-v69

  • Referral Guidelines for Suspected Cancers
    The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE)
    June 2015

  • Cancer and its management (6th edition)
    Tobias J and Hochhauser D
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2010

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