Summary

Key Points

  • Bile duct cancer is a rare disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the bile ducts.
  • Having colitis or certain liver diseases can increase the risk of bile duct cancer.
  • Signs of bile duct cancer include jaundice and pain in the abdomen.
  • Tests that examine the bile ducts and nearby organs are used to detect (find), diagnose, and stage bile duct cancer.
  • Different procedures may be used to obtain a sample of tissue and diagnose bile duct cancer.
  • Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

Bile duct cancer is a rare disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the bile ducts.

A network of tubes, called ducts, connects the liver, gallbladder, and small intestine. This network begins in the liver where many small ducts collect bile (a fluid made by the liver to break down fats during digestion). The small ducts come together to form the right and left hepatic ducts, which lead out of the liver. The two ducts join outside the liver and form the common hepatic duct. The cystic duct connects the gallbladder to the common hepatic duct. Bile from the liver passes through the hepatic ducts, common hepatic duct, and cystic duct and is stored in the gallbladder.

When food is being digested, bile stored in the gallbladder is released and passes through the cystic duct to the common bile duct and into the small intestine.

Bile duct cancer is also called cholangiocarcinoma.

There are two types of bile duct cancer:

  • Intrahepatic bile duct cancer: This type of cancer forms in the bile ducts inside the liver. Only a small number of bile duct cancers are intrahepatic. Intrahepatic bile duct cancers are also called intrahepatic cholangiocarcinomas.
  • Extrahepatic bile duct cancer: The extrahepatic bile duct is made up of the hilum region and the distal region. Cancer can form in either region:


    • Perihilar bile duct cancer: This type of cancer is found in the hilum region, the area where the right and left bile ducts exit the liver and join to form the common hepatic duct. Perihilar bile duct cancer is also called a Klatskin tumor or perihilar cholangiocarcinoma.
    • Distal extrahepatic bile duct cancer: This type of cancer is found in the distal region. The distal region is made up of the common bile duct which passes through the pancreas and ends in the small intestine. Distal extrahepatic bile duct cancer is also called extrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma.

Risk Factors

Having colitis or certain liver diseases can increase the risk of bile duct cancer.

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. People who think they may be at risk should discuss this with their doctor.

Risk factors for bile duct cancer include the following conditions:

  • Primary sclerosing cholangitis (a progressive disease in which the bile ducts become blocked by inflammation and scarring).
  • Chronic ulcerative colitis.
  • Cysts in the bile ducts (cysts block the flow of bile and can cause swollen bile ducts, inflammation, and infection).
  • Infection with a Chinese liver fluke parasite.

Screening and Detection

Tests that examine the bile ducts and nearby organs are used to detect (find), diagnose, and stage bile duct cancer.

Procedures that make pictures of the bile ducts and the nearby area help diagnose bile duct cancer and show how far the cancer has spread. The process used to find out if cancer cells have spread within and around the bile ducts or to distant parts of the body is called staging.

In order to plan treatment, it is important to know if the bile duct cancer can be removed by surgery. Tests and procedures to detect, diagnose, and stage bile duct cancer are usually done at the same time.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
  • Liver function tests: A procedure in which a blood sample is checked to measure the amounts of bilirubin and alkaline phosphatase released into the blood by the liver. A higher than normal amount of these substances can be a sign of liver disease that may be caused by bile duct cancer.
  • Carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) and CA 19-9 tumor marker test: A procedure in which a sample of blood, urine, or tissue is checked to measure the amounts of certain substances made by organs, tissues, or tumor cells in the body. Certain substances are linked to specific types of cancer when found in increased levels in the body. These are called tumor markers. Higher than normal levels of carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) and CA 19-9 may mean there is bile duct cancer.
  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, such as the abdomen, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • MRCP (magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body such as the liver, bile ducts, gallbladder, pancreas, and pancreatic duct.

Different procedures may be used to obtain a sample of tissue and diagnose bile duct cancer.

Cells and tissues are removed during a biopsy so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer. Different procedures may be used to obtain the sample of cells and tissue. The type of procedure used depends on whether the patient is well enough to have surgery.

Types of biopsy procedures include the following:

  • Laparoscopy: A surgical procedure to look at the organs inside the abdomen, such as the bile ducts and liver, to check for signs of cancer. Small incisions (cuts) are made in the wall of the abdomen and a laparoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is inserted into one of the incisions. Other instruments may be inserted through the same or other incisions to perform procedures such as taking tissue samples to be checked for signs of cancer.
  • Percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography (PTC): A procedure used to x-ray the liver and bile ducts. A thin needle is inserted through the skin below the ribs and into the liver. Dye is injected into the liver or bile ducts and an x-ray is taken. A sample of tissue is removed and checked for signs of cancer. If the bile duct is blocked, a thin, flexible tube called a stent may be left in the liver to drain bile into the small intestine or a collection bag outside the body. This procedure may be used when a patient cannot have surgery.
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP): A procedure used to x-ray the ducts (tubes) that carry bile from the liver to the gallbladder and from the gallbladder to the small intestine. Sometimes bile duct cancer causes these ducts to narrow and block or slow the flow of bile, causing jaundice. An endoscope is passed through the mouth and stomach and into the small intestine. Dye is injected through the endoscope (thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing) into the bile ducts and an x-ray is taken. A sample of tissue is removed and checked for signs of cancer. If the bile duct is blocked, a thin tube may be inserted into the duct to unblock it. This tube (or stent) may be left in place to keep the duct open. This procedure may be used when a patient cannot have surgery.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs of bile duct cancer include jaundice and pain in the abdomen.

These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by bile duct cancer or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes).
  • Dark urine.
  • Clay colored stool.
  • Pain in the abdomen.
  • Fever.
  • Itchy skin.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Weight loss for an unknown reason.

Treatment Options

There are different types of treatment for patients with bile duct cancer.

Different types of treatments are available for patients with bile duct cancer. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Three types of standard treatment are used:

Surgery

The following types of surgery are used to treat bile duct cancer:

  • Removal of the bile duct: A surgical procedure to remove part of the bile duct if the tumor is small and in the bile duct only. Lymph nodes are removed and tissue from the lymph nodes is viewed under a microscope to see if there is cancer.
  • Partial hepatectomy: A surgical procedure in which the part of the liver where cancer is found is removed. The part removed may be a wedge of tissue, an entire lobe, or a larger part of the liver, along with some normal tissue around it.
  • Whipple procedure: A surgical procedure in which the head of the pancreas, the gallbladder, part of the stomach, part of the small intestine, and the bile duct are removed. Enough of the pancreas is left to make digestive juices and insulin.

Even if the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the operation, some patients may be given chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy. It is not yet known whether chemotherapy or radiation therapy given after surgery helps keep the cancer from coming back.

The following types of palliative surgery may be done to relieve symptoms caused by a blocked bile duct and improve quality of life:

  • Biliary bypass: A surgical procedure in which the part of the bile duct before the blockage is connected with part of the bile duct that is past the blockage or to the small intestine. This allows bile to flow to the gallbladder or small intestine.
  • Stent placement: A surgical procedure in which a stent (a thin, flexible tube or metal tube) is placed in the bile duct to open it and allow bile to flow into the small intestine or through a catheter that goes to a collection bag outside of the body.
  • Percutaneous transhepatic biliary drainage: A procedure used to x-ray the liver and bile ducts. A thin needle is inserted through the skin below the ribs and into the liver. Dye is injected into the liver or bile ducts and an x-ray is taken. If the bile duct is blocked, a thin, flexible tube called a stent may be left in the liver to drain bile into the small intestine or a collection bag outside the body.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer.

It is not yet known whether external radiation therapy helps in the treatment of resectable bile duct cancer. In unresectable, metastatic, or recurrent bile duct cancer, new ways to improve the effect of external radiation therapy on cancer cells are being studied.

  • Hyperthermia therapy: A treatment in which body tissue is exposed to high temperatures to make cancer cells more sensitive to the effects of radiation therapy and certain anticancer drugs.
  • Radiosensitizers: Drugs that make cancer cells more sensitive to radiation therapy. Combining radiation therapy with radiosensitizers may kill more cancer cells.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy).

Systemic chemotherapy is used to treat unresectable, metastatic, or recurrent bile duct cancer. It is not yet known whether systemic chemotherapy helps in the treatment of resectable bile duct cancer.

In unresectable, metastatic, or recurrent bile duct cancer, intra-arterial embolization is being studied. It is a procedure in which the blood supply to a tumor is blocked after anticancer drugs are given in blood vessels near the tumor. Sometimes, the anticancer drugs are attached to small beads that are injected into an artery that feeds the tumor. The beads block blood flow to the tumor as they release the drug. This allows a higher amount of drug to reach the tumor for a longer period of time, which may kill more cancer cells.

New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.

This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.

Liver transplant

In a liver transplant, the entire liver is removed and replaced with a healthy donated liver. A liver transplant may be done in patients with perihilar bile duct cancer. If the patient has to wait for a donated liver, other treatment is given as needed.

Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.

For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.

Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.

Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.

Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.

Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. See the Treatment Options section that follows for links to current treatment clinical trials. These have been retrieved from NCI's listing of clinical trials.

Follow-up tests may be needed.

Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.

Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.

Last Updated: 2015-09-20

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