Gallbladder Cancer: Diagnosis

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2023

ON THIS PAGE: You will find a list of common tests, procedures, and scans that doctors use to find the cause of a medical problem. Use the menu to see other pages.

Doctors use many tests to find, or diagnose, cancer. They also do tests to learn if cancer has spread to another part of the body from where it started. If the cancer has spread, it is called metastasis. Doctors may also do tests to learn which treatments could work best.

For most types of cancer, a biopsy is the only sure way for the doctor to know if an area of the body has cancer. In a biopsy, the doctor takes a small sample of tissue for testing in a laboratory. If a biopsy is not possible, the doctor may suggest other tests that will help make a diagnosis.

How gallbladder cancer is diagnosed

There are different tests used for diagnosing gallbladder cancer. Not all tests described here will be used for every person. Your doctor may consider these factors when choosing a diagnostic test:

  • The type of cancer suspected

  • Your signs and symptoms

  • Your age and general health

  • The results of earlier medical tests

In addition to a physical examination, the following tests may be used to diagnose gallbladder cancer:

  • Biopsy. A biopsy is the only way to make a definite diagnosis, even if other tests can suggest that cancer is present. During biopsy, a small amount of tissue is removed for examination under a microscope. A pathologist analyzes the sample(s). A pathologist is a doctor who specializes in interpreting laboratory tests and evaluating cells, tissues, and organs to diagnose disease.

    The sample of tissue can be taken 1 of several ways:

    • During a surgery

    • With a minimally invasive surgical technique known as laparoscopy (see below)

    • With a fine needle or thick needle aspiration (a core biopsy), using a computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan or ultrasound (see both below) to guide the needle placement

    • In some cases, a biopsy is done by passing an endoscope (a thin, flexible tube with a powerful light) through the mouth, past the stomach, and into the first part of the intestine. A tool can be passed from the endoscope through the intestinal wall to remove a sample of tissue.

  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). An ERCP allows the doctor to see inside the body. The person is lightly sedated, and the doctor inserts an endoscope through the mouth, down the esophagus, and into the stomach and small bowel. A smaller tube or catheter is passed through the endoscope and into the bile ducts. Dye is injected into the ducts, and the doctor takes x-rays that can show whether a tumor is present in the area around the bile ducts. A plastic or metal stent can be placed across an obstructed bile duct during ERCP to help relieve jaundice if it is present. An experienced gastroenterologist should perform this procedure. A gastroenterologist is a doctor who specializes in the function and disorders of the gastrointestinal tract. This procedure is used more commonly to find bile duct cancer than to find gallbladder cancer, but it may also be used if the gallbladder cancer spreads and blocks the bile ducts.

  • Percutaneous cholangiography. In this procedure, a thin needle is inserted through the skin and into the gallbladder area. A dye is injected through the needle so that a clear image will show up on x-rays. By looking at the x-rays, the doctor may be able to see whether there is a tumor in the gallbladder. More commonly, a cholangiography provides images of the bile ducts, and it may not show a tumor in the gallbladder. However, the procedure is excellent in detecting the site of a blocked bile duct.

  • Laparoscopy. Laparoscopy uses an endoscope to look at the gallbladder and other internal organs. The tube is inserted through a small incision in the abdomen.

  • Blood tests. The doctor may take samples of the patient’s blood to check for abnormal levels of bilirubin and other substances. Bilirubin is a chemical that may reach high levels in people with gallbladder cancer due to blockage of the common bile duct by a tumor. Carbohydrate antigen 19-9 (CA19-9) is a tumor marker that may also be checked with this type of cancer. A tumor marker is a substance produced by a tumor that may be found at higher levels if cancer is present and can be measured in the blood.

  • Computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan. A CT scan takes pictures of the inside of the body using x-rays taken from different angles. A computer combines these pictures into a detailed, 3-dimensional image that shows any abnormalities or tumors. A CT scan can be used to measure the tumor’s size. Sometimes, a special dye called a contrast medium is given before the scan to provide better detail on the image. This dye can be injected into a patient’s vein or given as a pill or liquid to swallow.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI produces detailed images of the inside of the body using magnetic fields, not x-rays. It can be used to find out whether the cancer has spread outside the gallbladder. MRI can also be used to measure the tumor’s size. A special dye called a contrast medium is given before the scan to create a clearer picture. This dye can be injected into a patient’s vein or given as a pill or liquid to swallow.

    A specialized MRI used for the gallbladder is called MRI cholangiopancreatography (MRCP). A contrast medium may be given before the MRI to create a clearer picture.

  • Ultrasound. An ultrasound creates a picture of the internal organs using sound waves. Tumors generate different echoes of the sound waves than normal tissue. This means that when the waves are bounced back to a computer and create images, the doctor can locate a mass inside the body.

  • Endoscopic ultrasonography. A special endoscope, which is a long, flexible scope, is inserted through the mouth after sedation. It can reach the stomach and some of the intestine. It has an ultrasound probe at the end that can be used to look for tumors and guide a biopsy with a small needle.

  • Positron emission tomography (PET) or PET-CT scan. A PET scan creates pictures of organs and tissues inside the body. A PET scan is usually combined with a CT scan (see above), called a PET-CT scan. However, you may hear your doctor refer to this procedure just as a PET scan. A small amount of a radioactive sugar substance is injected into the patient’s body. This sugar substance is taken up by cells that use the most energy. Because cancer tends to use energy actively, it absorbs more of the radioactive substance. However, the amount of radiation in the substance is too low to be harmful. A scanner then detects this substance to produce images of the inside of the body. These tests can sometimes be difficult to read because healthy and active tissues also use energy actively.

After diagnostic tests are done, your doctor will review the results with you. If the diagnosis is cancer, these results also help the doctor describe the cancer. This is called staging.

The next section in this guide is Stages. It explains the system doctors use to describe the extent of the disease. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.