Do Gallstones Lead to Gallbladder Cancer?

Your gallbladder is a small pear-shaped organ located in the upper right of your abdomen, connected to the liver and just under the rib cage. It serves as storage for extra bile, produced by the liver, and released into the small intestine when you eat. Bile helps break down and digest food (especially fatty foods). Removal of the gallbladder, known as a cholecystectomy, is the most common general surgical procedure performed, due to the prevalence of gallbladder conditions such as gallstones.
Gloved hands break apart large gallstones that have been surgically removed from a patient diagnosed with gallbladder cancer. MIIS logo at top right.

What Are Gallstones?

Gallstones are, simply put, a buildup of hardened digestive fluids that form stone-like structures. These can be very small to very large and can manifest as a single stone or hundreds of tiny sand-like grains. Millions of adults in the United States develop gallstones each year – the most common gastrointestinal disorder. Of this large number, only 1-3% actually experience symptoms. The symptoms usually appear if one of the gallstones is large enough to block the outflow of bile or if a stone migrates and gets trapped in the bile duct.
Many times, people will not need treatment for gallstones because they do not cause symptoms, which can include pain in the top right quadrant of the abdomen (and possibly referring to the back), nausea and vomiting and even jaundice.

Do Gallstones Increase the Risk of Gallbladder Cancer?

Although gallstones are very common, gallbladder cancer is extremely rare. There is no definitive link between the presence of gallstones and gallbladder cancer. However, there may be a slightly higher risk of gallbladder cancer in patients that has a very large gallstone. Otherwise, it is unknown why some people have a higher risk for cancer than others.
Other risk factors that contribute to the risk of developing gallbladder cancer include age, gender, smoking, ethnicity and family history.
Despite the rarity of this cancer, removed gallbladders are sent to pathology to ensure that no malignancy is present. If cancer is detected, an appropriate treatment plan will be pursued, and a multidisciplinary team of specialists will work with you to treat it.

Preventing Gallstones

It is important to remember that only a small fraction of gallstone cases are actually symptomatic, and most patients will live their entire life without ever experiencing a gallstone attack. However, being overweight or obese can increase your likelihood of developing gallstones. Additionally, rapid weight loss increases your chances as well. The best way to prevent gallstones is to maintain a healthy weight and lifestyle, however sometimes they simply cannot be prevented.

The Bottom Line

Gallstones are very common across the United States and the world; however, gallbladder cancer is rare. If you are overweight, thinking of losing weight, or someone that is considered at high risk for gallstones, schedule an appointment with us to discuss your options. The doctors at MIIS are experienced in treating gallbladder conditions and will work together with you to find the best option.