Gallbladder Disease: Stones, Polyps, and Cancer

What is the Gallbladder?

The gallbladder is a storage organ for bile. Bile is required to help you digest fats in your food. It helps to emulsify the fat into water so that your body can absorb it. Bile is not made in the gallbladder but is made in the liver.


Gallstones are very common in the normal population. In North America, the number of people who have gallstones is between 10-15%. It may be as high as 50% in some groups of people such as Aboriginal Canadians. Asians also tend to have higher rates of stones and usually have different types of stones from Caucasians. Caucasians tend to have cholesterol stones whereas Asians tend to have pigmented stones that are black or brown.

Most patients (80%) who have gallstones do not have any symptoms. Only a small minority do. The typical symptoms are:

  1. Pain after eating fatty foods
  2. Pain that is severe and constant
  3. Pain that is in the epigastric/upper mid abdomen or to the RIGHT, just under the rib-cage
  4. With a severe attack, the pain can go into the back and into the shoulders

Surgery is the only definitive cure for patients who have gallbladder symptoms. The preferred method is to remove the gallbladder using laparoscopic surgery using 4 small incisions.

Gallbladder Polyps

Gallbladder polyps are very common. The vast majority of polyps are small, and benign. They are usually made up of cholesterol that has become attached to the gallbladder wall and the appearance, on ultrasound, shows a polyp like growth. However, gallbladder polyps that are greater than 1cm are associated with a risk of cancer and laparoscopic surgery is recommended to prevent cancer.

Gallbladder Cancer

Gallbladder cancer is very rare in North America. However, gallbladder cancer is very difficult to treat as the gallbladder is very thin and therefore cancer spread occurs very easily. As well, there are some places where gallbladder cancer is more common, such as in Shanghai, China. Symptoms of gallbladder cancer is usually very vague and occurs late. The only proven method of treatment is early diagnosis and surgical removal of the gallbladder.

If you have a gallbladder problem, Pacific Executive Health can arrange for a rapid assessment with one of our experienced surgeons. We can also arrange for private surgery with the long wait that is usual in the public system.