About Bile Duct Cancer


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Bile duct cancer is a disease where cancerous cells form in the tissues of the bile duct. The bile duct is part of a network of tubes that connect the liver, gallbladder, pancreas, and small intestine. Bile duct cancer is a rare disease. It can occur in various regions of the bile duct.

Signs & Symptoms

These are signs and symptoms of bile duct cancer:

  • Yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes, also called jaundice
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Clay-colored stool
  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Fever
  • Itchy skin
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weight loss for an unknown reason

Many other health problems can also cause these signs. If you have any of these signs, see your doctor as soon as possible.

Learn more about bile duct cancer from the National Cancer Institute.

Images of the Bile Ducts

anatomical drawing of intrahepatic bile ducts

Anatomy of the intrahepatic bile ducts. Intrahepatic bile ducts are a network of small tubes that carry bile inside the liver. The smallest ducts, called ductules, come together to form the right hepatic bile duct and the left hepatic bile duct, which drain bile from the liver. Bile is stored in the gallbladder and is released when food is being digested.

anatomical drawing of extrahepatic bile ducts

Anatomy of the extrahepatic bile ducts. Extrahepatic bile ducts are small tubes that carry bile outside of the liver. They are made up of the common hepatic duct (hilum region) and the common bile duct (distal region). Bile is made in the liver and flows through the common hepatic duct and the cystic duct to the gallbladder, where it is stored. Bile is released from the gallbladder when food is being digested.

Specialties & Treatments

The treatment or combination of treatments each patient has depends on the stage of the cancer, recommendations of the care team, and the patient’s wishes. These are the most common types of treatment for bile duct cancer: 

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy

Huntsman Cancer Institute’s Gastrointestinal (GI) Cancers Program provides comprehensive, compassionate, state-of-the-art care for cancers of the digestive system. Our experts treat and diagnose all types of GI cancers and conditions.

Learn more about types of cancer treatments and about cancer screenings.

Find a Bile Duct Cancer Doctor

Causes & Risk Factors

Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean you are sure to get cancer. It means your chances of getting that disease are higher than the average person’s. Talk with your doctor to learn more about your cancer risk.

These are risk factors for bile duct cancer:

  • A disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis
  • Chronic ulcerative cholitis
  • Cysts in the bile ducts
  • Infection with a Chinese liver fluke parasite

Learn more about ways to prevent cancer and about family history and genetic counseling.

Diagnosis & Stages

Diagnosis of Bile Duct Cancer

Doctors use these tests to diagnose bile duct cancer:

  • Physical exam and history: A health care provider examines your body for signs of disease. Your personal health habits, past illnesses, and symptoms help guide the exam.
  • Laboratory tests: Through testing body tissues, blood, urine, or other substances in the body, your health care team can check to see how the liver and other organs are functioning. They can also look for substances that cells produce when cancer is present.
  • Ultrasound: This procedure uses high-energy sound waves to create a picture of the internal organs.
  • Imaging tests: Using dyes, x-rays, magnets, radio waves and/or computer technology, your health care provider can create detailed images of internal organs.
  • Biopsy: The health care provider removes cell or tissue samples so they can be viewed under a microscope to check for signs of cancer.

Stages of Bile Duct Cancer

Stages of cancer show whether cancer has spread within or around the bile duct or to other parts of the body. Stages are determined by these things:

  • Size of the tumor
  • Number of lymph nodes the cancer has invaded
  • Whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body
Cancer spreads through the body in three ways: through tissue, the lymph system, or the blood.

Bile duct cancer is divided into different types with individual ways of staging the disease:

  • Stage 0: Stage 0 cancers are often called carcinoma in situ. For stage 0 bile duct cancer, abnormal cells are found on the innermost layer of the bile duct. These abnormal cells may become cancer and spread. 
  • Stage I
  • Stage II
  • Stage III
  • Stage IV

For bile duct cancer, your health care team might discuss the disease in terms of how they will recommend treating it. They may call it resectable cancer, which means that it can be removed with surgery. Unresectable cancer cannot be removed with surgery.

When cancer spreads from where it started to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. These metastatic cancer cells are the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if bile duct cancer spreads to the bone, the cancer cells in the bone are actually bile duct cancer cells. The disease is metastatic bile duct cancer, not bone cancer.

Learn more about stages of bile duct cancer from the National Cancer Institute.