Gallbladder carcinoma

Gallbladder carcinomas are usually asymptomatic until they reach an incurable stage. As such, early incidental detection is important, if the occasional patient is to be successfully treated. The majority (90%) are adenocarcinomas, and the remainder are squamous cell carcinomas. 

Although overall uncommon, gallbladder adenocarcinoma is the most common primary biliary carcinoma and the 5th most common malignancy of the gastrointestinal tract 1.

Predominantly affects older persons with long-standing cholecystolithiasis, and as such is most common in elderly women (>60 years of age, F:M ratio = 4:1) 1,3.

Early in the course of the disease, patients are invariably asymptomatic, and as such a therapeutic window is usually missed. Eventually symptoms develop, at which time the mass is usually not resectable.

Clinical presentation depends on the direction in which the mass extends. In cases where biliary obstruction is created then jaundice is often the first presentation. If the malignancy is located in the body or fundus of the gallbladder, then extension into the liver or adjacent colon or small bowel can lead to local pain or bowel obstruction respectively.

Other symptoms include right upper quadrant pain, weight loss and anorexia.

Over 90% of cases of gallbladder cancer are adenocarcinomas. Squamous cell carcinoma account for the majority of the remainder.

Risk factors include 1:

Gallbladder adenocarcinomas present in one of three morphologies:

  1. intraluminal mass
  2. diffuse mural thickening
  3. mass replacing the gallbladder
    • presumably the end result of progression from either 1 or 2
    • most common presentation

Typically gallbladder adenocarcinomas appear as large heterogeneous masses, which may have engulfed gallstones or areas of necrosis. Patchy moderate contrast enhancement is usually seen.

Features of advanced disease include:

Dynamic MRI considered being useful and reliable in staging of advanced gallbladder cancer. MRI combined with MRC is sensitive in detection of obstructive jaundice, liver invasion as well as liver and lymph nodes metastasis. It may be more difficult to delineate the invasion to duodenum and omental metastasis by MRI 6. Reported sensitivity rates for direct hepatic invasion and lymph node invasion on MRI can be as high as 100% and 92% respectively 7.

Unfortunately, due to the largely asymptomatic nature of these tumours, presentation is typically late with the majority of tumours being large, unresectable, with direct extension into adjacent structures or distant metastases present at diagnosis.

Curative resection is only possible for localised early disease, which is usually found incidentally. This is reflected in the dismal prognosis 4:

  • 1 year survival: 80%
  • 5 year survival: 1-5%

The differential will depend on the growth pattern of the tumour.

Intraluminal masses need to be distinguished from:

Mural thickening has a limited differential but is difficult to distinguish on imaging along. Possibilities include:

The differentials for large tumours include a number of nearby primaries with extension to the gallbladder:

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Article information

rID: 12407
Section: Pathology
Synonyms or Alternate Spellings:
  • Gallbladder adenocarcinoma
  • Gallbladder cancer
  • Adenocarcinoma of the gallbladder
  • Cancer of the gallbladder
  • Carcinoma of the gallbladder
  • Carcinoma of gallbladder
  • Gallbladder adenocarcinomas
  • Gallbladder carcinomas

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Cases and figures

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    Figure 1: gross specimen
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    Case 1
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    GB Cancer with li...
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    Case 5: intraluminal mass lesion
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    Case 6: with hepatic metastases
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    Transabdominal Ul...
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