Who gets gallbladder cancer, where it starts and how common it is.
Where it is
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.
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.
The gallbladder is a small organ tucked under the liver. It is a small, hollow pouch about 8cm long and 2.5cm wide and is connected to the liver and bowel by a series of tubes known as the bile ducts.
The liver makes bile which helps to break down fats from food. The gallbladder stores the bile until there are fats in the bowel that need digesting. Bile can also pass directly to the bowel from the liver. A sphincter controls the release of bile into the bowel.
Cancer of the gallbladder and bile ducts are rare in the UK. They are called biliary cancers.
Bile duct cancers are divided into 3 types depending on where they develop. Intrahepatic bile duct cancer forms inside the liver. Perihilar bile duct cancer forms just outside the liver where the right and left hepatic ducts meet. And distal bile duct cancer forms in the bile ducts that go through the pancreas to the small bowel.
Lymph nodes surround these organs and make up part of our immune system, helping us fight infections. They are often the first place cancer cells reach when they break away from a tumour.
For information about gallbladder and bile duct cancers go to cruk.org/cancer-types
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 1000 cases 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.