What is Bile Duct Cancer?

The Bile Duct

The bile duct is a thin tube, about 4 to 5 inches long, that reaches from the liver to the small intestine. The major function of the bile duct is to move a fluid called bile from the liver and gallbladder to the small intestine, where it helps digest the fats in foods.

Different parts of the bile duct system have different names.

In the liver, it begins as many tiny tubes (ductules) where bile collects from the liver cells. The ductules come together to form small ducts, which then merge into larger ducts and eventually the left and right hepatic ducts. The ducts within the liver are called intrahepatic bile ducts. These ducts exit from the liver and join to form the common hepatic duct at the hilum.

About one third of the way along the length of the bile duct, the gallbladder (a small organ that stores bile) attaches by a small duct called the cystic duct. The combined duct is called the common bile duct. The common bile duct passes through part of the pancreas before it empties into the first part of the small intestine (the duodenum), next to where the pancreatic duct also enters the small intestine.


Bile Duct Cancers

Intrahepatic Bile Duct Cancers - These cancers develop in the smaller bile duct branches inside the liver.

Perihilar Bile Duct Cancers - These cancers develop at the hilum - where the hepatic ducts have joined and are just leaving the liver. They are also called Klatskin tumors. These are the most common type of bile duct cancer.

Distal Bile Duct Cancers - These bile duct cancers are found further down the bile duct, closer to the small intestine. Because these bile ducts are outside of the liver, these cancers are also known as extrahepatic bile duct cancers.

More than 95% of bile duct cancers are of the adenocarcinoma type. Adenocarcinomas are cancers of glandular cells that can develop in several organs of the body. Bile duct adenocarcinomas develop from the mucus glands that line the inside of the duct.

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