Gallbladder cancer types

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.

Cancer of the gallbladder is rare. Almost all types of gallbladder cancer are adenocarcinomas, a type of cancer that begins in the gland-like cells that line organs of the digestive tract.

This overview will cover the basic facts about gallbladder cancer types, including:

Gallbladder adenocarcinoma

Gallbladder adenocarcinoma is cancer that starts in the gland-like cells of the gallbladder’s innermost layer, called the mucosa. These cells normally produce mucus. Gallbladder adenocarcinomas account for 90 percent of gallbladder cancer diagnoses.

While gallbladder cancer is rare, it’s prevalent in the biliary system—the system of glands that make fluid called bile—which helps the body digest food.

Types of gallbladder adenocarcinomas include:

  • Papillary adenocarcinoma is a rare type of gallbladder cancer that grows in finger-like projections. Papillary adenocarcinomas develop from cells in the tissues of the gallbladder. These cancers are less likely to spread to the liver or lymph nodes and have a better prognosis than other adenocarcinomas in the gallbladder.
  • Nonpapillary adenocarcinoma, another name for gallbladder adenocarcinoma, is a common type of gallbladder cancer.
  • Mucinous adenocarcinoma is a rare type of gallbladder adenocarcinoma in which cancer cells are surrounded by pools of mucus.

Less common types of gallbladder cancer

Less common types of gallbladder cancers include:

  • Squamous cell carcinomas develop in the skin-like cells, called squamous cells, that line the gallbladder. This type of cancer is rare.
  • Adenosquamous carcinomas are gallbladder tumors that are made up of a mix of cancer cells (sometimes called mixed histology) that derive from squamous and gland-like adenocarcinoma cells.
  • Small cell carcinomas are also called oat cell cancers because they look like oats under the microscope. Small cell cancers generally grow quickly and spread to other organs. They’re rare, but they’re more common in older women who have gallstones.
  • Sarcomas are cancers that develop in the soft tissues that support the body’s organs. These tissues include muscles, blood vessels and nerves. If cancer starts in a cell in the muscle layer of the gallbladder, it’s diagnosed as gallbladder sarcoma.

Gallbladder cancer prognosis

Prognosis and treatment options depend on the type and stage of gallbladder cancer. Determining whether the cancer has spread and whether it can be removed by surgery may impact prognosis and influence treatment options. Treatment options are also dependent on the patient’s age and health.

Next topic: What are the stages of gallbladder cancer?

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