What is a cancer of a bile duct?
Bile duct cancer is a malignant (cancerous) growth that grows in the bile ducts. It is also known as cholangiocarcinoma and is very rare in the UK.
The bile ducts transfer bile from the liver and gallbladder to the small intestine. Bile is a greenish-yellow digestive fluid produced by the liver that breaks down the fat in the food we eat. Together the gallbladder and bile ducts are called the biliary system.
Bile duct cancer that starts inside the liver is known as intrahepatic and is usually treated the same way as liver cancer. Growths that begin outside the liver are called extrahepatic.
Symptoms of bile duct cancer
One of the main symptoms of bile-duct cancer is jaundice – when the skin and eyes look yellow. This is caused by a cancerous growth blocking one of the bile ducts and causing the bile to stay in the body.
There may also be:
- an itchy feeling or a crawling sensation on the skin,
- stomach pain,
- loss of appetite and weight,
- and a high temperature.
Jaundice can be caused by several other conditions (for example, some forms of hepatitis), so it should always be checked out by a doctor.
What can cause this type of cancer?
Like liver cancer, bile duct cancer is more common in people who have inflammatory bowel conditions such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
Bile duct cancer can also be a result of defects present from birth. However, in most cases the cause is not known.
How to diagnose bile duct cancer?
Following a physical examination, a scan will be used to look for the tumor. This may be an ultrasound scan, CT scan or MRI scan.
A type of x-ray called an endoscopic retrograde cholangio-pancreatography (ERCP) may also be taken. Diagnosis can be confirmed with a bile duct biopsy.
Bile duct cancer treatment
Treatment will depend on a number of things, including the age and health of the patient and the size of the growth. If the growth is small and can be operated on, it may be surgically removed along with the bile ducts. The ducts that are left must be attached to the small intestine so that bile can move freely again.
If the cancer has spread, the surgeon may need to remove parts of other internal organs that have been affected, such as the pancreas.
Radiotherapy, chemotherapy, or both are also sometimes used to destroy any cancerous cells that remain.