Cholangiocarcinoma: The Basics

Author: OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed:

Cholangiocarcinoma is cancer of the bile duct. The bile duct carries bile from the liver to the small intestine. Cholangiocarcinoma is caused by bile duct cells growing out of control. As the number of cells grow, they form into a tumor. 

Cholangiocarcinoma that has spread from the bile duct to another part of the body is called metastatic cancer.

Risks

Risks include:

  • Older age.
  • Weighing more than is healthy.
  • Hepatitis.
  • Having a family member with cholangiocarcinoma.
  • Issues such as: primary sclerosing cholangitis, ulcerative colitis, cholechochal cysts and biliary infections.

Signs of Cholangiocarcinoma

Signs:

  • Painless yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice).
  • Itchy skin.
  • Weight loss.
  • Fever.
  • Gray colored stool.
  • Dark colored pee.

Diagnosis of Cholangiocarcinoma

When your healthcare providers think you may have cholangiocarcinoma, they will do a full exam of your body and ask you questions about your health. Tests can be:

  • Endoscopic or laparascopic ultrasound 
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)
  • Cholangiography
  • CT, MRI, PET
  • Blood tests

These tests are important but a biopsy is the only way to know for sure if you have cancer. A biopsy

  • Looks at a piece of the bile duct.
  • Is used to find out the cancer type, how normal it is [grade], and if it has spread.

A pathology report sums up these results and is sent to your healthcare provider, often 5-10 days after the biopsy. This report is an important part of planning your treatment. You can ask for a copy of your report for your records.

Staging Cholangiocarcinoma

To guide treatment, cholangiocarcinoma is "staged." This stage is based on

  • Size and location of the tumor.
  • Whether cancer cells are in the lymph nodes.
  • Whether cancer cells are in other parts of the body.

Stages range from stage I (smallest, most confined tumors) to stage IV (tumors that have spread to other parts of the body, also called metastatic cancer). The stage and type of cholangiocarcinoma  will guide your treatment plan.

Treatment

Often, these treatments are used: 

  • Surgery which removes the whole tumor is the only way to cure this cancer. The type of surgery depends on how big and where the tumor is. 
  • Radiation, the use of high energy x-rays to kill cancer cells, can be used after surgery to stop the cancer from coming back. 
  • Chemotherapy, the use of medication to treat cancer, can be used alone or with surgery and radiation. Sometimes chemotherapy is given only in the area where the tumor is. 

This article is a basic guide to cholangiocarcinoma. You can learn more about your type of cholangiocarcinoma and treatment by using the links below.

All About Cholangiocarcinoma

Surgical Procedures: Surgery and Staging for Bile Duct Cancer (Cholangiocarcinoma)

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