• Bile Duct Cancer (Cholangiocarcinoma)

    The bile duct is a series of tubes connecting the liver and gallbladder to the intestinal tract. Bile is a fluid and aids in the digestion of fats and is produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder, which releases it into the small intestine.

    Bile duct cancer is a rare disease in the United States, with less than 3,000 cases diagnosed annually. It is more frequent in underdeveloped parts of the world where parasitic infections of the bile duct are common. This form of cancer is not easily detectable due to the location of the duct within the body.

    There are two types of the disease:
    1. Extrahepatic – outside of the liver
    2. Intrahepatic – inside the liver

    Less than 10 percent of all bile duct cancer are intrahepatic.


    Researchers have yet to pinpoint the exact causes of bile duct cancer, but they have uncovered risk factors that indicate an increased chance of developing the disease. They include:

    • Previous diseases or irritations – including ulcerative colitis, cirrhosis, primary sclerosing cholangitis and choledochal cysts
    • Age – bile duct cancer patients are typically older, and 2 out of 3 patients are 65 or older when diagnosed
    • Chemicals – workers in rubber plants and automotive factories may be exposed to certain chemicals considered to cause bile duct cancer


    The primary symptoms include:

    • Jaundice, or yellowing of the skin and eyes
    • Excessive itching
    • Light-colored stools
    • Dark urine
    • Pain in the abdominal area
    • Lack of appetite
    • Significant weight loss without dieting
    • Fever
    • Nausea

    All of these symptoms are apparent in other less serious diseases and ailments. Patients recognizing these symptoms should contact their doctor immediately for a proper diagnosis.

    Testing and Diagnosis

    Because of the bile duct’s location, this form of cancer can be difficult to diagnose during early stages.

    A biopsy remains the only definitive way to determine if the patient has bile duct cancer. However, doctors may use a number of different tests, including blood chemistry tests and tumor marker tests, to determine if the patient has another disease.


    Surgery is the preferred treatment and truly offers the best chance for a cure. However, not all bile duct cancer tumors are completely removable, and depending on the tumor’s location and if the cancer has spread, doctors may employ other options to kill or contain the cancerous growth(s).

    In cases where surgery is not an option due to the size of the tumor or tumors, doctors may employ chemotherapy or radiation therapy in an attempt to shrink the tumors and make surgery viable.

    In other cases where tumors cannot be removed, a liver transplant may be an option as well.