Bile Duct Cancer

What is bile duct cancer?

The bile ducts carry bile, which is a substance used to break down fats during the digestion process. Bile ducts connect the liver and the gallbladder to the bowel. Bile duct cancer, sometimes referred to as cholangiocarcinoma, is a rare form of cancer, with around 1,000 new cases diagnosed in the UK every year. Almost all cases of bile duct cancer involve a type of cancer known as adenocarcinoma, which usually develops in the lining of the bile ducts.

What causes bile duct cancer?

The majority of cases of bile duct cancer have no known cause. However, some risks have been identified, which include:

  • Abnormal bile ducts: people who are born with abnormal bile ducts are more likely to develop bile duct cancer
  • Inflammatory bowel disease: people who suffer from chronic bowel conditions have a higher risk of developing bile duct cancer
  • Age: bile duct cancer can affect people of all ages, but it is most common amongst people over the age of 65
  • Viral infections

Symptoms of bile duct cancer

Bile duct cancer can cause bile to flow back into the blood, which then blocks the ducts. Symptoms associated with bile duct cancer include:

  • Jaundice
  • Dark yellow urine
  • Pale stools
  • Abdominal pain
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Lack of appetite

How is bile duct cancer diagnosed?

If you have symptoms you should see your GP, who will ask you a series of questions about your symptoms and will transfer you to a specialist for some tests. At the hospital, you will be examined and the following tests may be performed:

  • Ultrasound scan
  • CT scan
  • MRI scan
  • Biopsy

The test results will be analysed and evaluated to reach a concrete diagnosis and then a treatment pathway will be formulated.

How is bile duct cancer treated?

Treatment for bile duct cancer comes down to the size, location and grade of the cancer. The most common treatment for bile duct cancer is surgery. However, this may not be possible in all cases, especially if diagnosis is done at an advanced period and the cancer has moved to other vicinities of the body. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy may also be used to treat bile duct cancer.

What is the outlook for bile duct cancer?

Bile duct cancer can usually only be cured if it is restricted to the bile ducts. If the cancer has spread survival rates are relatively low. Only 1 in 20 people diagnosed with the disease survive for more than 5 years after diagnosis.

Living with bile duct cancer

Living with bile duct cancer is never an easy prospect but if you need extra support, advice or information you can contact several cancer charities. Your care team will also be hand on to answer any questions or address any concerns you may have.

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