Bile Duct Cancer

What is Bile Duct Cancer?

Bile duct cancer can start anywhere in the bile ducts, which connect the liver and the small intestine. The bile, or digestive fluid, that moves through these thin ducts helps your body break down fats. Called cholangiocarcinomas, these cancers often start in the mucous gland cells inside the ducts. If the cancerous cells are not removed, they can spread to the liver and other organs.

Fortunately, bile duct cancer is rare, but it occurs more commonly in people who have had chronic inflammation that impacts the ducts, who have a history of bile duct stones, or who have gotten a liver fluke infection from eating contaminated fish (primarily in Asia). There are no reliable screening tests to detect bile duct cancer; tumors are generally discovered once they have grown large enough to block a duct and cause symptoms.

What are the Symptoms of Bile Duct Cancer?

Symptoms of bile duct cancer can mimic those of other liver diseases.

Symptoms include

The primary sign is jaundice, a condition where the liver cannot properly clear excess bile from the body; it presents as yellowing in the eyes and skin. Other symptoms include itching, greasy bowel movements and dark-colored urine, and abdominal pain.

Even if these symptoms are not caused by bile duct cancer, they can indicate another serious illness like hepatitis and require a visit to your medical professional for an evaluation.

Bile Duct Cancer Causes

The bile duct plays a major role in the digestive system. Any type of inflammation, irritation, or block can cause digestive issues or even jaundice. These are the types of diseases that can lead to bile duct cancer. Although the exact cause of bile duct cancer is not known, there are factors that are closely linked to patients with bile duct cancer.

Something that causes irritation or inflammation would be bile duct stones or even an infestation with a parasite. Inflammation is a cause due to the changes in DNA cells that encourage them to grow abnormally and form cancers. Some gene mutations are inherited, but the gene mutations associated with bile duct cancer are usually obtained during life instead of being inherited. These mutations include the change that happens in the TP53 tumor suppressor gene, the KRAS gene, the HER2 gene or the MET gene.

How is Bile Duct Cancer Treated?

Since bile duct cancer doesn’t often present symptoms until it has spread.

Treatment includes

Surgery is the main treatment. Resectable cancer can be removed completely by surgery, but most bile duct cancers are unresectable by the time they are discovered. Even if a surgical procedure can’t be used to remove all cancerous cells, it can reduce tumors that are blocking liver functionality. This can help you feel better and extend your lifespan.

Additional treatments can include a chemotherapy and radiation combination to help shrink bile duct tumors. In some cases when the cancer has not spread, a full liver transplant is also an option.

Bile Duct Cancer Prevention

Although there is no known way to prevent bile duct cancer, and some things such as age, ethnicity, and bile duct abnormalities are out of our control, there are ways to lower the risk of getting bile duct cancer. Like most cancers, leading a healthy lifestyle plays an enormous part in preventing the cancer. Being at a healthy weight and staying at that weight throughout life with a regular exercise routine and a diet based on plant foods will likely reduce the risk of getting bile duct cancer.

There are also other ways to help prevent the risk of getting bile duct cancer. These include getting vaccinated for the Hepatitis B virus, avoiding blood borne viruses, avoiding alcohol to prevent cirrhosis, not smoking, and avoiding certain chemicals such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) or radioactive chemicals. Overall, try to live a lifestyle that will keep your digestive system healthy to prevent this cancer.

Last Reviewed:
September 13, 2016
Last Updated:
November 16, 2017