Cancers that originate in one organ often spread (or metastasize) to other organs inside the body, especially those nearby. As the gallbladder is located below the liver, people with gallbladder carcinoma also often develop liver cancer (called metastatic liver cancer). Patients dealing with both often must contend with a rash of severe symptoms and emotional challenges. However, early detection and treatment can help patients achieve positive health outcomes under the care of an experienced healthcare provider.
Diagnosing Gallbladder and Liver Cancer
Many patients with gallbladder and liver cancer may have experienced mild symptoms, such as appetite loss, fever, or weight loss, which they may have attributed to other illnesses or simply ignored. However, under the surface, their gallbladder is hardening, so they may begin to experience sharp or aching abdominal pain. Other common symptoms include:
- Yellowing skin and eyes
- Abdominal bloating
- Darker urine
- Lighter fecal matter
Unfortunately, given that gallbladder cancer is rare and that the gallbladder lies somewhat hidden in the body, cancer in the organ often goes undetected until it has spread to other organs, such as the liver or stomach. In fact, gallbladder cancer is often first diagnosed when a patient experiences acute symptoms of metastatic liver cancer, and a doctor identifies the origin of the liver’s cancer cells as the gallbladder.
One of the most common acute symptoms of metastatic liver cancer is an enlarged liver, which may result in severe abdominal pain and a distended abdomen. When a doctor suspects that these symptoms result from gallbladder or liver cancer, they will review a patient’s personal and family health history to identify possible risk factors and conduct a physical examination.
A doctor will order several tests to complete the diagnosis that will most likely include an excisional biopsy. In an excisional biopsy, a doctor uses a needle to remove a small portion of an affected organ for further examination and study. The sample will be evaluated by a pathologist – a doctor with specialized training in detecting and identifying diseases. The pathologist will subject the sample to further tests to evaluate it for the presence of cancer cells and determine what type of cancer is present.
If the sample tests positive for cancer cells, the doctor will also need to determine how far the cancer has spread. They do so with several different kinds of tests, starting with imaging tests, such as:
- Ultrasound scan
- Computed tomography (CT) scan
- Positron emission tomography (PET) scan
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan
Each of these tests can capture images of the body’s interior, with some being better suited for certain areas of the body than others. A doctor may also order a test known as a laparoscopy, a minor surgical procedure in which a surgeon makes a small incision in the abdomen and inserts a small tube with a camera inside to take pictures.
The doctor will also likely order one or more blood tests as well to detect the presence of specific antigens that can help them identify both the nature of the cancer cell present and its severity.
Treating Gallbladder and Liver Cancer
With early detection and treatment of gallbladder cancer, the 5-year relative survival rate is quite high. Statistics drawn from the National Cancer Institute’s SEER Program (Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results) database show that the 5-year relative survival rate for those with cancer at the Localized stage is 66 percent. SEER categorizes cancers at the Localized stage as those that have not spread outside the originating organ. Those at the Regional stage have spread to nearby organs, tissues, and structures. And those at the Distant stage have spread far throughout the body.
Treatment regimens for those with gallbladder cancer (only) depend greatly on how far the cancer has progressed. A cancer may be resectable, which means that it may be removed surgically (and the patient cured), or unresectable, which means that it cannot be removed. The percentage of resectable gallbladder cancers is relatively low. But patients should seek a second opinion when informed that their cancer is unresectable. What one provider may believe to be unresectable may be resectable in the hands of a more experienced and skilled surgeon.
Patients with gallbladder and metastatic liver cancer fall into the Regional category. The 5-year relative survival rate for those at the Regional stage drops to 28 percent. The survival rate drops even further to 2 percent for those at the Distant stage. However, these numbers do not fully account for one’s prognosis. Diving deeper into the details, a person’s survival rate is also positively associated with other factors such as overall health, age, and outlook, among others.
Gallbladder cancer that has spread to the liver is unresectable. A doctor will provide palliative surgery to treat cancer symptoms and prevent complications in these cases. Palliative surgery can prolong one’s life and provide some comfort, but it will not cure cancer.
Patients may also begin a radiation therapy regimen that can help eliminate existing cancer cells and slow the growth of new ones. Chemotherapy drugs may be used to achieve the same purpose. However, both of these therapeutic measures are harsh on non-cancerous cells. New targeted therapy drugs attack specific cancers in cells with fewer side effects. Immunotherapy, which leverages laboratory-fabricated substances to boost or heal the body’s own immune system to better fight cancer cells, is also a helpful treatment tool that can help slow cancer growth. Patients may also enter clinical trials to receive new experimental treatments, which may help fight their cancer.
Living with Gallbladder and Liver Cancer
Essential to a person’s prognosis is their outlook. Research has shown that those with high levels of optimism and hope enjoy better health outcomes. Doubtless, gall bladder cancer’s severe symptoms, coupled with the harsh side effects of common cancer treatments, make a gallbladder and metastatic liver diagnosis incredibly physically challenging. And the physical impact compounds the emotional stress that patients suffer. However, patients must take advantage of available mental health resources and take all necessary steps to manage their healthcare to ensure they can enjoy the highest quality of life possible.
Gallbladder cancer patients should talk with their doctor about their prognosis and cancer treatment options to ensure they have all the facts and make the best decisions possible. They also should talk with friends and family, if possible, and join an emotional support group or speak with a counselor as well. And they should talk with a social worker working for their healthcare provider or a local government agency who can help them locate and obtain the financial resources to handle additional expenses for treatment that have arisen.
Speaking with a social worker is especially important if the patient lives alone. Cancer and treatment symptoms often leave one feeling weak and unable to handle routine tasks like shopping and meal preparation. Social workers can also help cancer patients obtain home care services to help them with these everyday tasks, provide emotional support, and serve as an emergency contact.
It’s also important that those dealing with gallbladder and liver cancer take care of their health. Patients must follow their doctor-prescribed medication regimen, without which symptoms could grow worse, or complications may arise. Patients should also do their best to eat, as one of the most common side effects of both advanced cancer and cancer treatments like radiation therapy is weight loss. Failing to eat will rob the body of the energy and nutrients needed to keep a patient functioning and their immune system fighting cancer. It will also make treatment regimens less effective and increase the chances of complications.
The emotional toll of having gallbladder and liver cancer on a patient is tremendous. Fear, anxiety, and depression can overwhelm patients, leading them to neglect their health and reduce their prognosis in short order. Yet, approaching treatment and life with optimism and hope can help patients manage their treatment, medication, and health better and lead to better health outcomes.
When Gallbladder cancer patients are diagnosed with gallbladder and liver cancer, they face a challenging physical and emotional road ahead. With the current treatment options available, such advanced cancer is not curable. Yet multiple treatment regimens can extend a patient’s life and improve its quality to a great degree. To take full advantage of these cancer care options, patients must be under the care of an experienced and trusted cancer treatment provider like Immunity Therapy Center, which works tirelessly to help advanced cancer patients live long, healthy, and productive lives.
If you have recently been diagnosed with gallbladder and liver cancer (or any other liver disease), give us a call. We’ll walk you through your treatment options, help you identify the best one for you`(depending on the stages of Gallbladder cancer), and help you obtain the emotional support and other support you need to enjoy the best possible outcome from our healthcare professionals. We pride ourselves on providing every patient with compassionate, high-quality, and affordable care that begins the minute you walk in the door. Our expert staff can help you achieve the life you want while they help you get cancer under control. Give us a call, and let’s discuss your prognosis.
Written By: Dr. David Alvarez
Dr. David Alvarez is a Board Certified Medical Doctor from Universidad Xochicalco and Certified by the American Heart Association (Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support).
Dr. Alvarez has been collaborating with Dr. Bautista as an Assistant Medical Director at the Immunity Therapy Center for over 6 years. He provides daily on site patient care and participates on the medical board on research and development of patient treatment plans and programs. Dr. Alvarez is a knowledgeable and compassionate Doctor committed to helping patients get to where they want to be health wise through a more holistic and comprehensive approach.
At Immunity Therapy Center, our goal is to provide objective, updated, and research-based information on all health-related topics. This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by Dr. Carlos Bautista, a Board Certified Medical Doctor at Immunity Therapy Center. All information published on the site must undergo an extensive review process to ensure accuracy. This article contains trusted sources with all references hyperlinked for the reader's visibility.