The stages of gallbladder cancer | Cancer Research UK
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What is staging?

Cancers are divided into stages, depending on how far they have grown. The two main staging systems used in gallbladder cancer are the TNM system and number systems.

TNM stages of gallbladder cancer

TNM stands for ‘tumour, node, metastasis’. So TNM staging takes into account the size of the tumour (T), whether there is cancer in the lymph nodes (N), and whether cancer has spread to other parts of the body (M or metastasis).

Number stages of gallbladder cancer

There are 4 main stages in this system. Stage 1 means the cancer is only in the top layers of the tissues lining the gallbladder. Stage 2 means that it has grown through the muscle layer of the gallbladder and into the connective tissue underneath. In stage 3, the cancer may have grown through the wall of the gallbladder and may be in nearby lymph nodes. Stage 4 means the cancer is advanced. It may have grown into one of the main blood vessels leading into the liver or into 2 or more organs outside the liver. Or the cancer may have spread to lymph nodes or organs far away from the gallbladder. Some doctors also refer to stage 0, which is a very, very early stage of gallbladder cancer.

Your doctor may use a simpler 3 stage system to decide which treatment to give you. The 3 stages are localised, unresectable and recurrent gallbladder cancer.

 

CR PDF Icon View a summary of treating gallbladder cancer.

 

What cancer staging is

The stage of a cancer tells the doctor how far a cancer has grown or spread. It is important because the stage often decides the treatment. The tests and scans that your doctor does to diagnose your cancer give some information about the stage. But your doctor may not be able to tell you the exact stage until you have surgery.

 

Different staging systems for gallbladder cancer

There are different ways of staging cancers. The two main ways are the TNM system and number systems. Sometimes the stage of your cancer may sound a bit confusing. You are unlikely to be as familiar with these terms as your doctor is. If you do not understand what stage your cancer is and would like to know more, ask your doctor. Understanding your staging may help you understand why your doctors have chosen a particular treatment for you. There is a list of questions for your doctor at the end of this section that may help you. Also, there is more about staging cancers in the section about cancer.

Below is a diagram showing the layers of the gallbladder, knowing about the layers can help to understand the different stages.

Diagram showing the layers of the gallbladder

 

TNM stages of gallbladder cancer

TNM stands for Tumour, Node, and Metastasis. The system describes

The size and spread of the gallbladder tumour (T)

There are 5 stages of tumour size in the current TNM classification: T1 - T4 and a very early stage called Tis or carcinoma in situ.

Tis (carcinoma in situ) is the earliest possible stage of gallbladder cancer. The cancer cells are all inside the lining of the gallbladder wall. Because of this, the cancer cannot have spread anywhere else in the body. Gallbladder cancers are rarely found this early. This is only likely if you have had your gallbladder removed for other reasons, such as gallstones.

T1 means the tumour has started to grow into the wall of the gallbladder. T1 is divided into 2 further groups, T1a and T1b. T1a means that the cancer has grown into the connective tissue layer underneath the inner lining of the gallbladder wall. T1b means that the cancer has started to grow into the muscle layer underneath this connective tissue layer.

Diagram showing stage T1a and T1b gallbladder cancer

T2 means the cancer is still contained in the gallbladder but has grown through the main muscle layer of the wall into the connective tissue underneath. 

Diagram showing stage T2 gallbladder cancer

T3 means the cancer has grown right through the gallbladder wall. It may have begun to grow into the liver or one other nearby organ such as the stomach, bowel or pancreas.

DIagram showing stage T3 cancer of the gallbladder

T4 means the cancer has grown into one of the main blood vessels into the liver (the hepatic portal vein or hepatic artery). Or it has grown into 2 or more organs outside of the liver.

DIagram showing stage T4 gallbladder cancer

Whether cancer cells have spread to the lymph nodes (N)

There are 3 main stages of lymph node involvement in cancer of the gallbladder

  • N0 means there are no lymph nodes containing cancer cells
  • N1 means there are cancer cells in one or more nearby lymph nodes (such as along the bile duct or the main blood vessels to the liver)
  • N2 means there are cancer cells in lymph nodes further away from the gallbladder

Diagram showing cancer cells in nearby lymph nodes

Whether the cancer has spread to a different part of the body (M)

There are 2 M stages of gallbladder cancer

  • M0 means the cancer has not spread to organs or structures far away from the gallbladder
  • M1 means the cancer has spread to another part of the body far away from the gallbladder, such as the brain or lungs (you may hear your doctor call this distant metastasis)

Diagram showing gallbladder cancer that has spread

Together the T, N and M stages give a complete description of the stage of your cancer. As an example, if you have a T3, N0, M0 cancer, you have a tumour that has grown through the wall of your gallbladder and it may have spread into a nearby organ or structure. But the lymph nodes are clear and there is no spread of the cancer to more distant parts of your body. Using this type of stage grouping, doctors may then give the cancer stage a number.

 

The number stages of gallbladder cancer

There are four main stages in this system - stages 1 to 4. Some doctors also refer to stage 0.

Stage 0 or Carcinoma in situ (CIS)

If you have CIS or stage 0 cancer of the gallbladder, you have a very, very early stage cancer. There are cancer cells only in the layer of tissue lining your gallbladder. Some doctors may not regard this as a true cancer because the cancer cells are just in the lining. So there is very little risk of the cancer having spread. It is unusual for gallbladder cancer to be found this early, as there are few or no symptoms at this stage. It is sometimes picked up this early when someone has their gallbladder removed for gallstones. 

Stage 1

This is the earliest stage of invasive cancer. It means that the cancer is only in the inner layers of the tissues lining the gallbladder. It has not spread to nearby tissues, lymph nodes or other organs. Stage 1 is the same as T1, N0, M0 in the TNM stages.

Stage 2

This means that cancer has grown through the muscle layer of the gallbladder wall and into the connective tissue underneath. It has not spread outside the gallbladder. Stage 2 in the TNM stages is the same as T2, N0, M0.

Stage 3

This stage is divided into 3A and 3B

Stage 3A means the cancer has grown through the gallbladder wall but has not spread to the lymph nodes. This is the same as T3, N0, M0.

Stage 3B means the cancer is within the gallbladder wall or has broken through the outer lining. And it has spread to nearby lymph nodes. This may be written as T1, T2 or T3, N1 or M0.

Stage 4

This means that the cancer is advanced. It is divided into stage 4A and 4B. 

Stage 4A means the cancer has either grown into one of the main blood vessels leading into the liver or into 2 or more organs outside of the liver. And it may or may not have spread into nearby lymph nodes (t4, N0 or N1, M0)

Stage 4B means the cancer is any size and

  • has spread to lymph nodes further away from the gallbladder. But has not spread to distant organs in the body (Any T, N2, M0), OR
  • has spread to structures or organs far away from the gallbladder (Any T, Any N, M1)
 

Simple staging system

Sometimes your doctor may use an even simpler staging system to make decisions about what treatment you need. You may hear your doctor refer to one of the following three stages

  • Localised (stage 1 and 2) - the cancer is contained within the gallbladder and can be removed with surgery
  • Unresectable (stage 3 and 4) - the cancer has spread to tissue outside of the gallbladder and it cannot all be removed with surgery. It is possible to remove some stage 3 cancers so they won't all be in this group
  • Recurrent - the cancer has come back after your first treatment. It can come back in the gallbladder but may also be in other organs of the body. Doctors sometimes also call this stage 4.
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Updated: 11 June 2014