The gallbladder is a small organ that stores bile, a fluid used in digestion. Like all organs, the gallbladder’s cells are susceptible to mutations that can lead to cancer. When they catch the disease early, the prognosis for people afflicted with gallbladder cancer is good. Unfortunately, the disease shows few symptoms, especially early on, and the possibility for successful treatment deteriorates the longer the illness goes unnoticed.
The most common symptoms of gallbladder cancer are abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes caused by excess bile in the blood), and abdominal lumps caused by the swelling gallbladder and possible growth of tumors in the liver. Additional symptoms include loss of appetite (and thus weight loss), swelling in the abdomen, fever, itchiness, darker urine and lighter colored or greasy stool. Gallbladder cancer is relatively rare, so these symptoms are more often caused by other conditions. These signs characteristically appear in later stages of gallbladder cancer, but they have been known to present in the earlier stages as well.
Stage 0, Stage I, and Stage II
Gallbladder cancer almost always begins in the innermost layer of the organ’s tissue. From there, it can grow to fill the gallbladder or else grow outward and into nearby organs. It can also grow into the gallbladder’s blood and lymph vessels.Stage 0 is characterized by the presence of a tumor but no additional growth within the gallbladder or outward into the rest of the body. In Stage I, the tumor has begun growing into the outer layers of the organ, but it has not spread beyond the gallbladder’s tissue. In Stage II gallbladder cancer, the tumor remains localized but has grown into the outermost layer of the gallbladder’s tissue, making it a potential threat to other, nearby organs.
Stage IIIA and Stage IIIB
By Stage IIIA, the tumor has grown all the way through the gallbladder. At this time, it may or may not yet have extended into the liver or other proximal organs. The cancer has not, however, grown into the nearby lymph nodes, and it has not metastasized to other, more distant parts of the body.Stage IIIB is characterized by the tumor reaching the lymph nodes, which are unaffected in IIIA. Conversely, it has not reached the liver, blood vessels or any other, nearby organs. As in IIIA, the cancer remains localized and has not metastasized to noncontiguous organs.
Stage IVA and Stage IVB
Stage IVA gallbladder cancer remains localized; it has not spread to distant organs. It has, however, grown through the major blood vessels and into the liver or another, nearby organ. In this stage, it may or may not have reached the lymph nodes.Stage IVB comprises two different scenarios. The first is that the tumor has metastasized through the lymphatic system to nodes in distant parts of the body. It may or may not have also spread to other organs. By this time, the original tumor may or may not have grown out of the gallbladder into other, neighboring organs.The second possibility of Stage IVB is that the cancer has spread to distant organs and tissues, which may include other lymph nodes. As in Stage IVA, the tumor itself may still be restricted to the gallbladder or it may have spread into nearby organs.Treatment is most effective in the early stages of gallbladder cancer, so it is important to remain vigilant. Because symptoms may not be apparent or even present when the disease is still nascent, you should visit your doctor regularly to ensure the health of your gallbladder and all your other organs.