Gallbladder Tumors Workup

Updated: Jun 14, 2017
  • Author: Thomas J VanderMeer, MD; Chief Editor: John Geibel, MD, DSc, MSc, AGAF  more...
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Laboratory Studies

General laboratory studies are not highly specific for gallbladder cancer.

In the later stages, liver function enzyme levels may be slightly elevated; these levels are generally not elevated in stages I and II. An elevated bilirubin or alkaline phosphate level generally indicates advanced or obstructive disease. Elevated carbohydrate antigen 19-9 (CA19-9) is 79.4% sensitive and 79.5% specific for gallbladder cancer. Elevated carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) is also associated with gallbladder cancer and is 93% specific and 50% sensitive.



Ultrasonography is a very useful tool in the workup of gallbladder cancer. Polypoid lesions must be at least 5 mm in size to be detected by ultrasonography. Cholesterol polyps generally appear as pedunculated lesions attached to the gallbladder wall.

Ultrasonographic findings that indicate possible malignancy or the need for further workup include the following:

  • Thick gallbladder wall (see the image below)
  • Vascular polyp
  • Mass projecting into the lumen or invading the wall
  • Multiple masses or a fixed mass in the gallbladder
  • Porcelain gallbladder
  • Extracholecystic mass
Sagittal ultrasonogram in a 71-year-old woman. Thi Sagittal ultrasonogram in a 71-year-old woman. This image demonstrates heterogeneous thickening of the gallbladder wall (arrows). The diagnosis was primary papillary adenocarcinoma of the gallbladder.

Invasion of the liver can also be seen on ultrasonography.

Displacement of a stone to one side of the gallbladder is suggestive of possible malignancy.

Endoscopic ultrasonography (EUS) with fine-needle aspiration can be used to evaluate for peripancreatic and periportal lymphadenopathy.


CT, MRI, and PET

Computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are useful in evaluating the extent of invasion and resectability of gallbladder tumors. CT results suggestive of gallbladder cancer include asymmetrical wall thickening or gallbladder mass with or without invasion into the liver. CT of the chest, abdomen, and pelvis is a common staging modality that can determine the presence of distant metastases and give reliable information about involvement of other organs and vascular structures.

A porcelain gallbladder has been commonly associated with gallbladder cancer; however, studies have shown that the type of calcification is more important in determining the risk for malignancy. Selective mucosal calcifications carry an increased risk when compared to diffuse intramural wall calcification. (See the image below.)

A transaxial enhanced computed tomography (CT) sca A transaxial enhanced computed tomography (CT) scan of a 60-year-old man with right upper quadrant pain shows a partially calcified gallbladder (arrow). At laparotomy and histology, an infiltrating adenocarcinoma of the gallbladder was confirmed.
Computed tomography (CT) scan in a 65-year-old man Computed tomography (CT) scan in a 65-year-old man. This image depicts squamous cell carcinoma of the gallbladder and invasion of the liver.

Positron emission tomography (PET) has a sensitivity of 75% and a specificity of 88% in gallbladder cancer but is not used routinely in the preoperative staging or postoperative surveillance of the disease. [13, 14]



Percutaneous CT-guided biopsy is avoided in patients whose tumors are considered resectable on the basis of preoperative imaging. Because of the substantial risk of peritoneal seeding, percutaneous biopsy and diagnostic cholecystectomy are not necessary in patients suspected of having gallbladder cancer. In these patients, exploration with curative intent is planned on the basis of preoperative imaging alone.

Percutaneous CT-guided biopsy is a useful diagnostic tool in patients who appear to have a nonresectable tumor. Tissue diagnosis is necessary for palliative treatment.


Histologic Findings

The vast majority of gallbladder cancers are adenocarcinomas. Papillary adenocarcinomas have a better prognosis, because they tend to be well-differentiated and less invasive. A number of other histologic subtypes have been described, but the prognostic implications are unknown. Some authors have described metaplastic and nonmetaplastic subtypes and have suggested that metaplastic tumors have a more favorable prognosis.

Unfortunately, most gallbladder cancers are poorly differentiated and present at an advanced stage; accordingly, the prognostic importance of histologic subtypes is limited.



Gallbladder tumors are commonly staged according to the tumor-node-metastasis (TNM) system of the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC; see Tables 1 and 2 below). [15]

Table 1. AJCC TNM Classification of Gallbladder Tumors (Open Table in a new window)

Tumor (T), Node (N), Metastasis (M)



Primary tumor cannot be assessed


No evidence of primary tumor


Carcinoma in situ


Tumor invades lamina propria (T1a) or muscle layer (T1b)


Tumor invades the perimuscular connective tissue; no extension beyond the serosa or into the liver


Tumor perforates the serosa (visceral peritoneum) and/or directly invades the liver and/or 1 other adjacent organ or structure, such as the stomach, duodenum, colon, pancreas, omentum, or extrahepatic bile ducts


Tumor invades the main portal vein or hepatic artery or invades multiple extrahepatic organs or structures


Regional lymph nodes cannot be assessed


No regional lymph node metastasis


Metastases to nodes along the cystic duct, common bile duct, hepatic artery, and/or portal vein


Metastases to periaortic, pericaval, superior mesenteric artery, and/or celiac artery lymph nodes


Distant metastasis cannot be assessed


No distant metastasis


Distant metastasis

Table 2. AJCC Staging of Gallbladder Tumors According to TNM Classification (Open Table in a new window)

AJCC Stage



Tis, N0, M0


T1 (a or b), N0, M0


T2, N0, M0


T3, N0, M0


T1-3, N1, M0


T4, N0-1, M0


Any T, N2, M0

Any T, any N, M1