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Home >> Specialities >> Cancer Care >> Bile duct cancer

Bile duct cancer

Bile duct cancer, also known as cholangiocarcinoma, is a rare and aggressive form of cancer that affects the bile ducts, which are responsible for carrying bile from the liver to the small intestine. While not as well-known as some other types of cancer, bile duct cancer poses a significant threat to those who are diagnosed with it. 
The bile ducts are a crucial part of the digestive system, aiding in the digestion and absorption of fats by transporting bile produced by the liver. Bile duct cancer occurs when abnormal cells form in the lining of these ducts. There are three main types of bile duct cancer, classified based on their location within the biliary system:

  • Intrahepatic Cholangiocarcinoma: This type of bile duct cancer originates within the liver itself and is relatively rare compared to other forms of the disease.
  • Perihilar Cholangiocarcinoma: Also known as Klatskin tumors, these cancers occur at the junction where the right and left hepatic ducts meet to form the common hepatic duct.
  • Distal Cholangiocarcinoma: This type affects the lower part of the bile duct, near its connection to the small intestine.

Risk Factors
While the exact cause of bile duct cancer remains unclear, several risk factors have been identified, including:

  • Age: Bile duct cancer is more common in people over the age of 50.
  • Chronic Inflammation: Conditions such as primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) and chronic liver infections can lead to chronic inflammation of the bile ducts, increasing the risk.
  • Bile Duct Abnormalities: Congenital conditions that lead to abnormal bile duct development can increase the risk of cancer.
  • Liver Flukes: In some regions, infection with certain parasitic worms called liver flukes is associated with a higher risk of bile duct cancer.
  • Smoking: Tobacco use has been linked to an increased risk of developing bile duct cancer.

Bile duct cancer is often referred to as a silent killer because it tends to remain asymptomatic in its early stages. However, as the tumor grows and obstructs the bile ducts, a range of symptoms may manifest, including:

  • Jaundice: One of the most common early signs, jaundice causes yellowing of the skin and eyes due to the buildup of bilirubin in the body.
  • Abdominal Pain: As the tumor grows, it can cause discomfort or pain in the upper right side of the abdomen.
  • Unexplained Weight Loss: Bile duct cancer can lead to unintended weight loss, often due to a decreased appetite.
  • Itchy Skin: Bile acids can accumulate in the bloodstream when the bile ducts are blocked, leading to itching.
  • Dark Urine and Pale Stools: Bilirubin buildup can result in dark urine, while pale or clay-colored stools may occur due to reduced bile flow.

Diagnosing bile duct cancer can be challenging because of its nonspecific symptoms. Doctors typically use a combination of medical imaging, blood tests, and biopsies to confirm the diagnosis. Imaging studies like CT scans, MRIs, and endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) help visualize the bile ducts and identify abnormalities. A biopsy is often needed to examine tissue samples for cancer cells definitively.

Treatment Options
The treatment of bile duct cancer depends on several factors, including the cancer's stage, location, and the patient's overall health. Treatment options may include:

  • Surgery: Surgical resection is the primary treatment for early-stage bile duct cancer. Surgeons may remove part of the bile duct, liver, or pancreas, depending on the tumor's location and extent.
  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy may be used before surgery to shrink tumors or after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells.
  • Radiation Therapy: Radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays to target and destroy cancer cells. It is often used in combination with other treatments.
  • Liver Transplant: In some cases, a liver transplant may be an option for individuals with bile duct cancer that cannot be removed by surgery.
  • Palliative Care: In the advanced stages of the disease, palliative care focuses on relieving symptoms and improving the patient's quality of life.

The Importance of Early Detection
Early detection of bile duct cancer is critical for improving treatment outcomes. Unfortunately, the lack of specific symptoms in the early stages often leads to late diagnoses, which can limit treatment options. Regular check-ups with a healthcare provider and awareness of potential risk factors can help individuals detect this cancer in its earlier, more treatable stages.
In conclusion, bile duct cancer is a rare but formidable adversary. Its insidious nature makes it challenging to detect in its early stages, but understanding the risk factors, recognizing the symptoms, and seeking prompt medical attention can make a significant difference in the prognosis. Advances in research and treatment options offer hope for those affected by this cancer, emphasizing the importance of continued efforts to improve early detection and develop more effective therapies.

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