Introduction of bile duct cancer

Bile duct cancer is a rare but aggressive type of cancer.

Cholangiocarcinoma is the medical term sometimes used for bile duct cancer.

In most cases, there are no signs of bile duct cancer until it reaches the later stages, when symptoms can include:

  • jaundice – yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes
  • clay-coloured stools (faeces)
  • dark-coloured urine

See your GP if you have signs of jaundice or are worried about other symptoms. While it is unlikely you will have bile duct cancer, it is best to get it checked.

Read more about the symptoms of bile duct cancer.

Why does bile duct cancer happen?

The exact cause of bile duct cancer is unknown. However, there are some things that can increase your chances of developing the condition. These include a chronic liver disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), hepatitis B and hepatitis C.

In parts of the Far East, particularly Thailand, bile duct cancer is approximately 100 times more common than in the West. This is thought to be due to chronic bile duct infection by liver worms, which are common in those areas but not a factor in the West.

Read more about the causes of bile duct cancer.

Types of bile duct cancer

There are two main types of bile duct cancer, depending on where the cancer begins:

  • cancer that starts in a part of the bile duct that is inside the liver is known as intrahepatic bile duct cancer
  • cancer that starts in part of the bile duct outside the liver is known as extrahepatic bile duct cancer

Usually, intrahepatic bile duct cancer is treated in a similar way to primary liver cancer.


Cancer of the bile duct can be difficult to diagnose, so you may need several tests, including blood tests, ultrasound scans, computerised tomography (CT) scans, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. Some of these tests may require you to be injected with a special dye that highlights your bile ducts so they are easier to examine.

If possible, you will probably need a biopsy before bile duct cancer can be diagnosed. This involves removing a small sample of tissue so it can be studied under a microscope.

However, in some cases your surgeon may prefer to remove the suspected tumour based on the results of your scans alone.

Read more about diagnosing bile duct cancer.

How is bile duct cancer treated?

Cancer of the bile duct can usually only be cured if cancerous cells haven’t spread. If this is the case, some or all of the bile duct may be surgically removed.

Unfortunately, only a small proportion of bile duct cancer cases are diagnosed at this stage and are suitable for surgery. This is because signs and symptoms usually develop at a late stage.  

Despite this, radiotherapychemotherapy and, to a lesser extent, surgery can relieve the symptoms of bile duct cancer and improve the quality of life of people in the advanced stages of the condition.

Read more about treating bile duct cancer.  

Who is affected?

Bile duct cancer is rare. Only about 1,000 people are diagnosed with the condition each year in the UK.

However, studies suggest that cases of bile duct cancer are increasing in most countries. The reasons for this are unknown.

Most cases of bile duct cancer occur in people over 60. The condition affects men and women almost equally.

Can bile duct cancer be prevented?

There are no guaranteed ways to avoid getting bile duct cancer. However, it is possible to reduce your chances of developing the condition.

The most effective ways of achieving this are not smoking, reducing your alcohol intake, and trying to ensure you do not become infected with hepatitis B or hepatitis C.

Read more about preventing bile duct cancer.

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