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Home > Health Library > Bile Duct Cancer (Cholangiocarcinoma) Treatment (PDQ®): Treatment - Patient Information [NCI]
This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.
Bile duct cancer is a rare disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the bile ducts.
A network of tubes, called ducts, connects the liver, gallbladder, and small intestine. This network begins in the liver where many small ducts collect bile (a fluid made by the liver to break down fats during digestion). The small ducts come together to form the right and left hepatic ducts, which lead out of the liver. The two ducts join outside the liver and form the common hepatic duct. The cystic duct connects the gallbladder to the common hepatic duct. Bile from the liver passes through the hepatic ducts, common hepatic duct, and cystic duct and is stored in the gallbladder.
When food is being digested, bile stored in the gallbladder is released and passes through the cystic duct to the common bile duct and into the small intestine.
Bile duct cancer is also called cholangiocarcinoma.
There are two types of bile duct cancer:
Having colitis or certain liver diseases can increase the risk of bile duct cancer.
Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. People who think they may be at risk should discuss this with their doctor.
Risk factors for bile duct cancer include the following conditions:
Signs of bile duct cancer include jaundice and pain in the abdomen.
These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by bile duct cancer or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:
Tests that examine the bile ducts and nearby organs are used to diagnose and stage bile duct cancer.
Procedures that make pictures of the bile ducts and the nearby area help diagnose bile duct cancer and show how far the cancer has spread. The process used to find out if cancer cells have spread within and around the bile ducts or to distant parts of the body is called staging.
In order to plan treatment, it is important to know if the bile duct cancer can be removed by surgery. Tests and procedures to detect, diagnose, and stage bile duct cancer are usually done at the same time.
The following tests and procedures may be used:
Different procedures may be used to obtain a sample of tissue and diagnose bile duct cancer.
Cells and tissues are removed during a biopsy so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer. Different procedures may be used to obtain the sample of cells and tissue. The type of procedure used depends on whether the patient is well enough to have surgery.
Types of biopsy procedures include the following:
Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.
The prognosis and treatment options depend on the following:
Treatment options may also depend on the symptoms caused by the cancer. Bile duct cancer is usually found after it has spread and can rarely be completely removed by surgery. Palliative therapy may relieve symptoms and improve the patient's quality of life.
The results of diagnostic and staging tests are used to find out if cancer cells have spread.
The process used to find out if cancer has spread to other parts of the body is called staging. For bile duct cancer, the information gathered from tests and procedures is used to plan treatment, including whether the tumor can be removed by surgery.
There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.
Cancer can spread through tissue, the lymph system, and the blood:
Cancer may spread from where it began to other parts of the body.
When cancer spreads to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. Cancer cells break away from where they began (the primary tumor) and travel through the lymph system or blood.
The metastatic tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if bile duct cancer spreads to the liver, the cancer cells in the liver are actually bile duct cancer cells. The disease is metastatic bile duct cancer, not liver cancer.
Stages are used to describe the different types of bile duct cancer.
Intrahepatic bile duct cancer
Perihilar bile duct cancer
Distal bile duct cancer
The following groups are used to plan treatment:
Resectable (localized) bile duct cancer
The cancer is in an area, such as the lower part of the common bile duct or perihilar area, where it can be removed completely by surgery.
Unresectable (including metastatic and recurrent) bile duct cancer
Unresectable cancer cannot be removed completely by surgery. Most patients with bile duct cancer cannot have their cancer completely removed by surgery.
Metastasis is the spread of cancer from the primary site (place where it started) to other places in the body. Metastatic bile duct cancer may have spread to the liver, other parts of the abdominal cavity, or to distant parts of the body.
Recurrent bile duct cancer is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back in the bile ducts, liver, or gallbladder. Less often, it may come back in distant parts of the body.
There are different types of treatment for patients with bile duct cancer.
Different types of treatments are available for patients with bile duct cancer. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Three types of standard treatment are used:
The following types of surgery are used to treat bile duct cancer:
After the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the surgery, some patients may be given chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy. It is not yet known whether chemotherapy or radiation therapy given after surgery helps keep the cancer from coming back.
The following types of palliative surgery may be done to relieve symptoms caused by a blocked bile duct and improve quality of life:
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy:
External and internal radiation therapy are used to treat bile duct cancer.
It is not yet known whether external radiation therapy helps in the treatment of resectable bile duct cancer. In unresectable, metastatic, or recurrent bile duct cancer, new ways to improve the effect of external radiation therapy on cancer cells are being studied:
Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy).
Systemic chemotherapy is used to treat unresectable, metastatic, or recurrent bile duct cancer. It is not yet known whether systemic chemotherapy helps in the treatment of resectable bile duct cancer.
In unresectable, metastatic, or recurrent bile duct cancer, intra-arterial embolization is being studied. It is a procedure in which the blood supply to a tumor is blocked after anticancer drugs are given in blood vessels near the tumor. Sometimes, the anticancer drugs are attached to small beads that are injected into an artery that feeds the tumor. The beads block blood flow to the tumor as they release the drug. This allows a higher amount of drug to reach the tumor for a longer period of time, which may kill more cancer cells.
New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.
This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
In a liver transplant, the entire liver is removed and replaced with a healthy donated liver. A liver transplant may be done in patients with perihilar bile duct cancer. If the patient has to wait for a donated liver, other treatment is given as needed.
Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells. Targeted therapies usually cause less harm to normal cells than chemotherapy or radiation therapy do. The following targeted therapies are being studied in patients with bile duct cancer that is locally advanced and cannot be removed by surgery or has spread to other parts of the body:
Immunotherapy is a treatment that uses the patient's immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body's natural defenses against cancer. This cancer treatment is a type of biologic therapy.
Immune checkpoint inhibitor therapy is a type of immunotherapy that may be used to treat bile duct cancer.
Immune checkpoint inhibitor. Checkpoint proteins, such as PD-L1 on tumor cells and PD-1 on T cells, help keep immune responses in check. The binding of PD-L1 to PD-1 keeps T cells from killing tumor cells in the body (left panel). Blocking the binding of PD-L1 to PD-1 with an immune checkpoint inhibitor (anti-PD-L1 or anti-PD-1) allows the T cells to kill tumor cells (right panel).
Treatment for bile duct cancer may cause side effects.
For information about side effects caused by treatment for cancer, see our Side Effects page.
Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.
For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.
Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.
Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.
Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.
Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.
Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about clinical trials supported by NCI can be found on NCI's clinical trials search webpage. Clinical trials supported by other organizations can be found on the ClinicalTrials.gov website.
Follow-up tests may be needed.
Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.
Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.
For information about the treatments listed below, see the Treatment Option Overview section.
Treatment of resectable intrahepatic bile duct cancer may include:
Treatment of resectable perihilar bile duct cancer many include:
Treatment of resectable distal bile duct cancer may include:
Adjuvant therapy for resectable bile duct cancer may include:
Use our clinical trial search to find NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are accepting patients. You can search for trials based on the type of cancer, the age of the patient, and where the trials are being done. General information about clinical trials is also available.
Treatment of unresectable bile duct cancer (including metastatic or recurrent disease) may include:
For more information from the National Cancer Institute about bile duct cancer, see the following:
For general cancer information and other resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:
Physician Data Query (PDQ) is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries come in two versions. The health professional versions have detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions have cancer information that is accurate and up to date and most versions are also available in Spanish.
PDQ is a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH is the federal government's center of biomedical research. The PDQ summaries are based on an independent review of the medical literature. They are not policy statements of the NCI or the NIH.
Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about the treatment of bile duct cancer. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.
Reviewers and Updates
Editorial Boards write the PDQ cancer information summaries and keep them up to date. These Boards are made up of experts in cancer treatment and other specialties related to cancer. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made when there is new information. The date on each summary ("Updated") is the date of the most recent change.
The information in this patient summary was taken from the health professional version, which is reviewed regularly and updated as needed, by the PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board.
Clinical Trial Information
A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Clinical trials can be found online at NCI's website. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service (CIS), NCI's contact center, at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
Permission to Use This Summary
PDQ is a registered trademark. The content of PDQ documents can be used freely as text. It cannot be identified as an NCI PDQ cancer information summary unless the whole summary is shown and it is updated regularly. However, a user would be allowed to write a sentence such as "NCI's PDQ cancer information summary about breast cancer prevention states the risks in the following way: [include excerpt from the summary]."
The best way to cite this PDQ summary is:
PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. PDQ Bile Duct Cancer (Cholangiocarcinoma) Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/liver/patient/bile-duct-treatment-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389290]
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Last Revised: 2021-08-20
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