About bile duct cancer
Bile ducts are small tubes that connect the liver, gall bladder and small intestine.
They allow fluid called bile to flow from the liver, through the pancreas, to the gut, where it helps with digestion. Cancer can affect any part of these ducts.
Bile duct cancer can sometimes be cured if caught very early on. But it's not usually picked up until a later stage, when a cure isn't possible.
Symptoms of bile duct cancer
There aren't usually any symptoms of bile duct cancer until it grows large enough to block the bile ducts.
This can cause:
- yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)
- itchy skin
- pale stools and dark urine
- loss of appetite and weight loss
- persistent tiredness and feeling unwell
- tummy (abdominal) pain and swelling – some people feel a dull ache in the upper right hand side of their tummy
- high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above
- chills and shivering
When to see your GP
See your GP if you have persistent symptoms that you're worried about – particularly if you have jaundice.
These symptoms can have a number of causes, so it's important to get a proper diagnosis.
Several tests may be needed to help diagnose bile duct cancer. Your GP may do blood tests or refer you to hospital.
Tests you may have include:
- blood tests to check for signs of cancer or a problem with your liver
- scans, such as an ultrasound scan, computerised tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan
- detailed X-rays taken after a special dye has been injected into your bile ducts to make them show up more clearly
- a biopsy – where a small sample of tissue is removed so it can be looked at under a microscope for signs of cancer
Causes of bile duct cancer
The exact cause of bile duct cancer is unknown. Most occur without a clear cause, although some things can increase your risk of getting it.
- primary sclerosing cholangitis – a rare type of liver disease that causes long-term inflammation of the liver
- bile duct abnormalities – such as cysts (fluid-filled sacs) in the bile ducts that are present from birth
- biliary stones within the liver – hard stones, similar to gallstones, that form in the bile duct
- infection with a liver fluke parasite (mostly a problem in Asia)
- exposure to certain chemicals and toxins, including thorotrast (a special dye that used to be used in medical scans)
Treatment for bile duct cancer
If you are diagnosed with bile duct cancer, the health professional looking after your care will discuss the treatment options with you.
It's not usually possible to cure bile duct cancer because it's often only diagnosed after it has grown and spread.
But even in these cases, treatment can help control the symptoms for months or possibly years.
The main treatments are:
- surgery to remove the affected area – this is only suitable for a small number of people, but could get rid of the cancer completely
- inserting a hollow tube (stent) into the bile duct to stop it becoming blocked – this can help relieve symptoms such as jaundice
- chemotherapy – where medication is given to stop the cancer cells growing and to relieve your symptoms
- radiotherapy – where a beam of radiation is carefully aimed at the cancer cells to stop them growing and to relieve your symptoms
Outlook for bile duct cancer
The outlook for bile duct cancer depends on which part of the bile duct is affected and how far the cancer has grown.
As with many types of cancer, where it's possible to remove the cancer, there's a chance it could come back later. This means it is important to seek clinical assessment early if you develop symptoms after having been treated.
There are no published Northern Ireland statistics available for bile duct cancer, due to the small number of cases.
Cancer Research UK quotes the following statistics obtained from Public Health England’s National Cancer Intelligence Network (NCIN) data. It is reasonable to believe that this reflects the position for people in Northern Ireland who are diagnosed with bile duct cancer.
- one in every two to five people will live at least five years if bile duct cancer is caught early on and surgery is carried out to try to remove it
- one in every 50 people will live at least five years if it's caught at a later stage and surgery to remove it isn't possible