By Helen Goldberg, M.D.
February is gallbladder and bile duct cancer awareness month. Green is the color that is used for public awareness.
Gallbladder and bile duct cancers are rare, and together constitute only 2 to 3 percent of all cancers. Gallbladder cancers account for two-thirds of these cancers; bile duct cancers are responsible for the rest. An early diagnosis, which is rare, is usually made when the organ is removed because of gallstones. Unfortunately, these cancers have usually spread by the time they are diagnosed. The cancers often aren’t recognized until signs of jaundice, a yellow tinge to the skin and whites of the eyes, are present. There also may be abdominal pain and unexplained weight loss. Unfortunately, there are no routine screening tests available for early detection.
The causes of gallbladder cancer remain unknown, although 70 to 90 percent of those with the disease have a history of gallstones. Either the gallstones themselves, or the irritation, infection, or metabolic changes they cause, may be a major factor. Obesity is also a risk factor which may be related to the increase in gallstones in obese people. Gallbladder cancer is seen more often in women, Native Americans and Mexican Americans.
The cause of bile duct cancer is unknown, but exposure to environmental or industrial toxins which includes nitrosamines found in processed, cured meats, asbestos, radon and alcohol. There are also several medical diseases that lead to increased risk such as ulcerative colitis and pancreatitis.
Treatment options vary based on how advanced the cancer is. Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy are all potential therapies. There are several new therapies being investigated that will hopefully improve the outcome.