Bile Duct Cancer: Let’s Talk Risk Factors, Treatment, and Support

February 10, 2022
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Stock photo: Getty Images

Bile duct cancer is relatively uncommon. About 8,000 people are diagnosed with the disease each year in the United States. But for anyone who has bile duct cancer, the impact of the diagnosis is just as significant as any other cancer diagnosis. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with the disease, there are educational and support resources available to help you cope.

One helpful resource is CSC’s free digital support community for people impacted by cancer. Members can create a private support website to keep their friends and family updated about their own cancer journey or their loved one’s. Members also have access to a variety of discussion boards where they can share their experiences and offer hope and inspiration to others. One MyLifeLine member who is caring for a loved one with bile duct cancer shared these words of comfort:

“Being a caregiver and having to watch your spouse suffer is heartbreaking and frustrating. … Know that you aren’t alone out there. Try to do things for yourself. I know that’s hard but sometimes you have to.” 

In recognition of Bile Duct Cancer Awareness Month, we’d like to highlight key details about the disease, including additional support resources that can help you navigate a bile duct cancer diagnosis. 


Types of Bile Duct Cancer

Bile duct cancer — also called cholangiocarcinoma — can develop in bile duct branches in the liver or outside the liver. The bile duct is a thin tube that runs from the liver to the small intestine. It’s about 4 to 5 inches long. The bile duct’s main purpose is to move a fluid called bile. It transports bile from the liver to the gallbladder, then to the small intestine. There, bile helps digest the fats in foods.

Bile duct cancers are named for where they develop. Common types include:

  • Intrahepatic bile duct cancers: These cancers develop in the smaller bile duct branches located inside the liver.
  • Extrahepatic bile duct cancers: These cancers develop in the branches of the bile duct outside of the liver. There are 2 main types:
    • Perihilar bile duct cancers: These are the most common type of bile duct cancer. They develop at the hilum, where 2 smaller branches leave the liver and merge into one duct.
    • Distal extrahepatic bile duct cancers: These are found further down the bile duct, near the small intestine.

More than 95% of bile duct cancers are adenocarcinomas. Bile duct adenocarcinomas develop from the mucus glands that line the inside of the duct.


Risk Factors for Bile Duct Cancer

Ongoing research is helping us better understand bile duct cancer and its risk factors. This helps with early detection and prevention. Some common risk factors for bile duct cancer include:

  • Primary sclerosing cholangitis
  • Chronic ulcerative colitis
  • Choledochal cysts
  • Cirrhosis
  • Infection with Hepatitis B or C
  • Infection with a Chinese liver fluke parasite
  • Old age
  • Obesity
  • Type 1 or type 2 diabetes
  • Exposure to chemicals, such as dioxins or nitrosamines


Signs & Symptoms of Bile Duct Cancer

There are several symptoms of bile duct cancer. However, these symptoms can also be caused by other conditions. Be sure to speak with your health care provider if you experience any of the following:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes)
  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Fever
  • Itchy skin
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss


Diagnosing & Treating Bile Duct Cancer

Diagnosing bile duct cancer requires a physical exam by your health care provider. Blood tests and imaging of your liver and bile ducts are also required. If cancer is diagnosed, additional imaging studies will help determine the stage (or extent) of the disease.

Standard treatments for bile duct cancer include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy. Your treatment options depend on the stage of your cancer, your overall health, and your preferences. Treatment should be individualized for you. You will be able to work with your health care team to make thoughtful decisions about your options.

Resources & Support

If you are living with bile duct cancer or are a caregiver to someone with bile duct cancer, we offer a variety of resources to help ease the burden of your journey.

“Remember it's a journey. … It's normal to be frustrated, scared, angry, disappointed when we get derailed. Let yourself feel all of it. Then put it into perspective. You can almost always think of a way it could be worse. When you think about that, be grateful for what you have.”

 Heather, cancer survivor & MyLifeLine member


We are dedicated to ensuring that all people impacted by cancer are empowered by knowledge, strengthened by action, and sustained by community. Be sure to check our blog section often as we share more news, stories, and inspiration to help support people impacted by cancer.