Gallbladder cancer causes and risk factors

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was updated on June 3, 2022.

Gallbladder cancer is a rare type of cancer, representing nearly half of all cancers occurring in the biliary tract. The biliary tract is where the body creates and stores bile, and it includes the gallbladder and bile ducts.

What causes gallbladder cancer?

The exact causes of gallbladder cancer are unknown, but certain factors may increase a person’s risk for developing the disease. Some examples are a history of gallstones and being female.

Gallbladder cancer risk factors

In many cases, the risk factors for developing gallbladder cancer are related to chronic inflammation of the gallbladder. Common risk factors include those listed below.

History of gallstones

The leading gallbladder cancer risk factor is a personal history of gallstones. Over 75 percent of patients with gallbladder cancer have gallstones or had them in the past. These hard, rock-like deposits sometimes form from cholesterol and other substances found in bile.

Gallstones, also known as cholelithiasis, may block the flow of bile and lead to chronic inflammation. However, gallstones are very common, particularly in middle-aged women, and most people with this condition do not develop gallbladder cancer.

Other gallbladder cancer risk factors

Gender: Gallbladder cancer occurs three to four times as frequently in women as in men. This may be related to the increased frequency of gallstones and chronic inflammation among women.

Age: Gallbladder cancer occurs mainly in individuals over the age of 60. The average age at diagnosis is 72.

Ethnicity and geography: Gallbladder cancer occurs more frequently in Latin Americans, Mexican Americans and Native Americans, while African Americans have the lowest risk. However, gallbladder cancer is less common in the United States compared with countries in Asia, Eastern Europe and South America.

Obesity: Being overweight or obese is a risk factor for gallbladder cancer and may be related to an increased risk for developing gallstones.

Chemical exposure: Some studies have shown that exposure to certain industrial chemicals, particularly those used in the rubber and textile industries, may be linked to an increased risk for developing gallbladder cancer. However, the link is not certain, and more research is needed.

Porcelain gallbladder: This is a condition where calcium deposits cover the wall of the gallbladder, and some but not all studies have suggested a link between this condition and gallbladder cancer. A link may also exist between chronic inflammation and the calcification of the gallbladder.

Choledochal cysts: Bile-filled cysts may develop along the common bile duct that leads from the gallbladder and liver to the small intestine. Sometimes the lining of the cysts may develop pre-cancerous cells, increasing the risk for developing cancer.

Bile duct abnormalities: Other conditions that cause the bile duct to back up or result in inflammation of the gallbladder may also raise the risk for developing gallbladder cancer.

Gallbladder polyps: These are abnormal growths that form on the gallbladder. They may be caused by cholesterol deposits or by inflammation. Larger polyps (bigger than a centimeter) have a greater chance of being cancerous, and doctors often recommend removing the gallbladder when larger polyps are found.

Typhoid: Individuals with a chronic infection caused by salmonella, the bacterium that causes typhoid, may be at increased risk for developing gallbladder cancer, but this is rare in the United States.

Is gallbladder cancer hereditary?

Although the genetic cause is unknown, the risk for developing gallbladder cancer seems to be greater in families with a history of the disease.

In addition, patients with hereditary biliary cysts may have a higher risk for developing gallbladder cancer.

Learn more about genetic testing

Next topic: What are the symptoms of gallbladder cancer?

Expert cancer care

is one call away.
appointments in as little as 24 hrs.