What is Bile Duct Cancer?

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  • Written By: D. Jeffress
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 17 November 2018
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The bile ducts are small tubes that carry bile from the liver to the small intestine to aid in digesting food. A cancerous tumor can emerge on the inner or outer lining of a duct, which may block the flow of bile and lead to a number of health problems. Most cases of bile duct cancer are seen in patients over the age of 60, and men and women have an approximately equal risk of developing tumors. Early detection and treatment of bile duct cancer are important to ensure that it does not spread to the liver and other parts of the body. In most instances, surgery is necessary to remove the tumor and clear blockages in the bile ducts.

Doctors have identified many possible causes of bile duct cancer. A history of inflammatory bowel diseases, especially ulcerative colitis, appears to be a significant risk factor. Many tumors develop from chronic cysts in the liver, gallbladder, or the bile ducts themselves. Some people are also predisposed to cancers of the liver and bile ducts because of familial history. In addition, individuals who have been exposed to parasitic worms called liver flukes are very likely to develop bile duct cancer.


Most instances of bile duct cancer do not initially produce physical symptoms. As tumors grow and begin blocking bile flow, a person may experience chronic abdominal pain, fever, chills, and a loss of appetite. A completely blocked duct can begin dissipating bile into the bloodstream and lead to jaundice, a condition in which the skin and eyes develop a yellow hue.

Doctors usually diagnose bile duct cancer by looking for signs of jaundice and taking computerized tomography (CT) scans of the abdomen. Imaging tests that reveal abnormal tissue masses indicate that further inspection is necessary. Specialists typically examine blood and stool samples, and a surgeon may extract a tissue sample from the duct for careful analysis. Initial treatment for bile duct cancer usually involves treating the underlying cause and removing the tumor to restore bile flow.

Cancerous tumors in bile ducts can often be removed in delicate surgical procedures. A surgeon usually tries to cut away the actual tumor and any surrounding tissue that may be afflicted. Follow-up chemotherapy or radiation treatments are necessary if the cancer starts to spread before a surgical procedure. The prognosis for patients is very good when tumors are recognized and removed in their early stages of development.



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