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Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the
Harvard Medical School

Symptoms

Early on, gallbladder and bile duct cancers may cause no symptoms. Nor can they be seen or felt during a routine physical exam. Rather, many of them are found when the gallbladder is removed as a treatment for gallstones. There are no screening tests for these cancers.

When symptoms occur, they can include

  • jaundice

  • abdominal pain or swelling

  • nausea and/or vomiting

  • lack of appetite

  • losing weight for no reason

  • itching

  • fever that doesn't go away.

Jaundice is the most common symptom of bile duct cancer, and nearly half of all people with gallbladder cancer have jaundice when they are diagnosed. Jaundice makes the skin and the whites of the eyes look yellow. This happens when the liver cannot get rid of bile. Levels of bilirubin (a dark yellow chemical in bile) then rise in the bloodstream. Bile and bilirubin can also cause itching.

Although many people with gallbladder and bile duct cancers have jaundice, the most common cause of jaundice is hepatitis, not cancer. Having a gallstone lodged in the bile duct can also cause jaundice; it can prevent bile from flowing into the small intestine. This is a noncancerous condition.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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